Jamie Munks and Dan Petrella
The Illinois General Assembly returns to Springfield on Friday for a lame-duck session that gives embattled Speaker Michael Madigan a final opportunity to make his case to remain at the helm of the House, while the Black Caucus makes a push for its wide-ranging social justice agenda.
The session is the lead-up to Wednesday’s inauguration of the 102nd General Assembly, which will touch off the official process of choosing the next House speaker. For the first time, Madigan faces enough opposition from fellow Democrats to deny him another term in the post he’s held for all but two years since 1983.
While Madigan’s fate provides political intrigue, the Black Caucus’ agenda, which covers a range of education, criminal justice, economic and health care issues, figures to be the legislative centerpiece of the session.
“A broad agenda to get rid of systemic racism is never done. We didn’t get here, in the situation we’re in, in one year, and we’re not going to get out of it in one legislative agenda,” said state Rep. Sonya Harper, a Chicago Democrat who was recently elected chair of the joint Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. “I’d like to say this is just a first step, as a caucus, and we will continue to push many more specific legislative agendas similar to this.”
A key piece of the caucus’s criminal justice reform plan is eliminating cash bail, which proponents argue disproportionately affects low-income people of color who are awaiting trial.
Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoring a measure that would eliminate the term “bail” from state statute. Judges would still have discretion to keep people awaiting trial in custody if it’s determined they pose a risk to the public or have violated the conditions of their pretrial release. But people could no longer be kept in jail solely based on their inability to make bail.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker backs eliminating cash bail and made it a legislative priority before the General Assembly’s spring session was truncated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal from Sims also would place strict limitations on the collective bargaining rights of police unions. Future contract negotiations would be limited to subjects directly related to wages and benefits, and discipline policies would no longer be subject to bargaining.
Among other provisions, the bill would require all officers in the state to be equipped with body cameras by 2025, and would withhold state-distributed funds from municipalities and counties that don’t comply.
It also would make it a class 3 felony, punishable by two to five years in prison, for law enforcement officers to misrepresent facts during investigations of officer misconduct, withhold knowledge of misrepresentations by others, fail to comply with body camera requirement or commit “any other act with intent to avoid culpability or liability for himself for another.”
Filed Tuesday, the measure already is facing pushback from police unions.
“This is not police ‘reform’ or ‘modernization,’” the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association said in a post on its Facebook page. “This is an attack on unions, collective bargaining, and on public safety.”
In a post on its website, the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police called the bill “a threat to law enforcement in Illinois.”
“If we (lose) this fight, it might as well be a crime to be a law enforcement officer in Illinois,” the post says.
Sims said the proposals were introduced as one package because the Black Caucus wants to take a holistic approach to modernizing the criminal justice system.
“The goal is to improve the profession and ensure that individuals understand and recognize that their relationship, no matter where they are, no matter what they look like, and the treatment that they receive from law enforcement is going to be the same,” Sims said.
Given the scope of the proposals the Black Caucus is putting forward, it remains unclear how much can be accomplished before the new term begins Wednesday.
But House Majority Leader Greg Harris said the urgency of addressing racial inequality was brought to the fore again this week when a Wisconsin prosecutor announced no charges would be brought against the white Kenosha police officer who shot and injured Jacob Blake, a Black man, this summer.
The House Black Caucus has endorsed Madigan’s reelection, which members say offers a better path for passing its priorities. Some lawmakers have said they believe Madigan called for a lame-duck session focused on the Black lawmakers’ agenda to demonstrate his commitment to one of his strongest bases of support.
Harris, the top member of Madigan’s leadership team, dismissed that line of thinking.
“As the speaker, one of his tasks is to help the Black Caucus and help every Democratic member achieve their goals,” Harris said.
The Black Caucus is also putting forth a range of education proposals, including a computer science requirement for high school graduation.
Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, who is spearheading that part of the agenda, said the University of Illinois’ flagship campus has computer science requirements that aren’t required of students graduating high school statewide.
“We wanted to make sure that if you were a kid finishing up high school and you apply to the University of Illinois, that your application didn’t go into the denied column because you did not receive these courses that were not required of you,” Lightford said.
The legislation also asks a state education advisory council to submit recommendations for a multiyear recovery plan for how to address for the disruption in schools caused by the pandemic.
Chicago Public Schools released data months into the pandemic that showed disparities in remote learning participation between Black and white students.
“When kids do return to school that the principal and the teachers recognize if the kids have really fallen behind, instead of continuing to push them on, our goal is to ensure there are some additional school days, perhaps, so that there can be more one-on-one instruction,” Lightford said.
Without any consensus on how to address a looming budget deficit of roughly $4 billion, the House won’t be considering an income tax increase or other revenue-generating measures, said Harris, a Chicago Democrat.
Pritzker last month announced more than $700 million in cuts that he characterized as a first round. The governor again this week called on Republicans to offer their own plan for cuts, and also struck an optimistic tone that there will soon be “serious consideration” of federal aid for state and local governments under a Democratic Senate and White House.
Republicans have laid the blame for the budget hole on Pritzker and Democrats for passing a budget that relied on unsure sources of revenue, including federal funding and Pritzker’s graduated-rate income tax proposal that failed in November.
Republican Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon this week called for the House and Senate to convene appropriations committees, to bring in agency directors and other key Pritzker administration officials to “hear directly from individuals who are responsible for carrying out the budgets, what options exist.”
“No longer is it appropriate that we simply go back to tax increase after tax increase to fill budget deficits that exist in the first place, but we hope will be taken care of by some outside intervention,” Demmer said.
Friday marks the first time lawmakers will convene in Springfield since a May special session, where they met for four days to pass a host of pandemic-related measures and a spending plan for the budget year that began July 1.
Since then, Madigan has been implicated in a federal bribery investigation in which Commonwealth Edison agreed to cooperate and pay a $200 million fine. Madigan has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.
But soon after the ComEd agreement was made public this summer, a small number of House Democrats began to peel away, announcing publicly they wouldn’t support Madigan again for speaker.
After Republicans picked up legislative seats in the November election, the number of publicly Madigan-opposed House Democrats grew to 19, enough to deny him the 60 votes he needs to retain the speakership when the 73-member caucus is sworn in.
Madigan has shown no sign of ceasing his effort for another term. Two of the defectors, Rep. Kathleen Willis of Addison, a member of Madigan’s leadership team, and Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago, launched their bids for speaker this week, joining the already announced Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego.
The mid-pandemic session will again see an unusual setup with the House, as in May, meeting at a Springfield arena rather than the state Capitol.
Lawmakers are returning as Sangamon County earlier this week defied public health orders and allowed restaurants to reopen for indoor service with limited capacity, though bars in Springfield without commercial kitchens must remain closed.
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