Concerns about the coronavirus have kept the Illinois General Assembly from meeting in Springfield for a month. And it’s not clear when they’ll be back in session — or back in their offices.
The suspension of the spring legislative session in mid-March sent State Senator Scott Bennett and State Representative Mike Marron back to their legislative districts. The two lawmakers and their legislative staff are all working from home, in keeping with directives to stay at home and practice social distancing. In-person meetings have been replaced by video conferencing.
“I’m able to do pretty much everything from my home,” said Bennett, a Champaign Democrat representing the 52nd Senate District. “But from 7:30 in the morning until pretty late, I’m getting calls from constituents and trying to help them kind of work their way through this bureaucratic maze, whether it be state issues or federal issues right now.”
In addition to the usual calls from constituents, Bennett says they’re now dealing with a high number of questions and requests about dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, and the stay-at-home order meant to control it.
Bennett and Marron say their callers include laid-off employees needing help applying for unemployment benefits, and employers with questions about appling for a grant or loan program, or operating in compliance with the governor’s stay-at-home order.
“With the businesses, I think a lot of the executive order was very broad, and it’s being interpreted differently in different locations,” said Rep. Marron, a farmer who says he’s been handling some of his calls from the cab of his tractor. “So I think there’s just kind of a lack of clarity on the part of business owners of whether they’re doing the right thing by staying open or whether they need to close.”
Such work would usually be done from the lawmakers’ district offices. But Marron and Bennett say they and their staff are managing to do work for their constituents from home while the offices are closed. The same cannot be said for their work at legislative meetings. The Illinois House and Senate and their committees have not held meetings since mid-March, due to the coronavirus. Local government bodies like county boards and city councils are allowed under the governor’s emergency declaration to hold virtual meetings using video conferencing, state law and even the Illinois constitution requires the General Assembly to meet together in person as a public body, to debate and vote on legislation.
“I know that there are some working groups that I think are going to start trying to tackle some of the legislation”, said Rep. Marron, whose 104th House District is in the eastern half of Bennett’s Senate district. “They may be meeting remotely because they’re not actually voting on anything. I think it’s just working out the details on some of the big ticket items so that we’re ready when we go back in session.”
Sen. Bennett chairs one such working group, devoted to crafting the language for the graduated state income referendum on the November ballot. But such groups can’t vote on legislation. Bennett says actual legislative sessions, where bills are voted on, is on hold until it’s safe for them to gather together again.
“My guess is a lot of the controversial bills won’t make much traction this year,” said Bennett, who says he had sponsored 15 bills of his own before the coronavirus forced the suspension of the spring session. “But things like, at least a temporary budget to get us through the next few months until, hopefully, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, that’s certainly necessary for the work of government.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Marron says he thinks the coronavirus outbreak will also have an impact on campaigning for the November election, even once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Marron, who is running for reelection in the 104th Illinois House District against Democrat Cynthia Cunningham, says the type of door-to-door campaigning he prefers to do will be more difficult now.
“I think people are not going to be as receptive at the doors and rightfully so,” said Marron, “because I think people, they’re going to be nervous about the health consequences of having a stranger knock on their door. And I don’t blame them for that. It’s going to be a challenge getting that message out this this fall.”
The Illinois General Assembly website shows April 21 as the next date for the Illinois Senate to meet, with no date set for the House. Rep. Marron says he hopes lawmakers will be able to get together by the end of May to pass a budget, but he says an exact date isn’t known yet.
“I think everything’s up in the air at this point”, said Marron.