What’s the proper legislative response to a public-health problem?
Last week, it wasn’t necessary. This week, it’s mandatory. Changes of opinion come quickly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
That explains why the word out of Springfield is that members of the General Assembly, after being off since mid-March, will return to Springfield next week. What a session it will be. Reports indicate they will be meeting in the city’s convention center and embracing social-distancing techniques to limit the virus’s spread.
In fact, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan is asking — in Madigan-world, that means requiring — all 177 legislators to sign a written pledge to follow the behavioral recommendations approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health that include pre- and post-session testing, temperature taking and mask wearing.
It’s usually preferable for citizens to cover their own faces when legislators meet so they can’t see what the General Assembly does in the public’s name. Not so this time.
What’s to be done? Well, that depends.
Legislators have to pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. If they don’t do so this month, it will take a supermajority to pass a spending plan.
That’s not a mathematical problem, because Democrats have supermajorities in both the House and Senate. But Madigan and Gov. J.B. Pritzker probably would prefer to pass a new budget in May to protect some Democrats from having to cast tough votes in June.
The state, of course, is in disastrous financial shape, which raises the question of how Pritzker plans to finance the massive financial-aid packages to individuals, businesses and municipalities that he envisions.
The answer is that he wants the federal government to give massive sums to Illinois so that he can redistribute those dollars wherever he sees fit.
But every other governor in the country wants the same thing. Considering the federal government will have to borrow every dollar it sends in aid, it’s hard to imagine there will be enough cash to go around.
That is more doable than achieving the governor’s other stated goal, that of beginning “to put our financial and economic house back in order.” The longest journey begins with one step — but the slog that is Pritzker’s stated goal is well nigh impossible, particularly so since his preferred solution to state debts, deficit and pension underfunding is dramatically increasing both taxes and social-welfare spending.
Remember, he’s counting on passing a progressive-income-tax amendment to the Illinois Constitution so that legislators will have more flexibility in targeting income groups and increasing tax rates.
It’s inarguable, of course, that the coronavirus pandemic and Pritzker’s lockdown orders responding to it have dramatically increased the state’s financial problems. His lockdowns have reduced the strength of the economy from robust to minimal and thrown thousands of people and business owners out of work and business. In his effort to save people’s lives, as he claims, his lockdowns have devastated people’s livelihoods.
As a consequence, the current state budget, the one that expires June 30, is now in shambles because of revenue shortfalls. His proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 also is a wreck for the same reason.
If they’ve a mind to do so, legislators can address a full panoply of tough issues next week. But the powers that be indicate the sessions will be short but not necessarily sweet — just long enough to do what’s politically necessary.