Don’t let representative government be a victim of COVID

It’s time to fast-track Illinois from the Dark Ages to the 21st century.

Illinois long has been infamous for passing budgets virtually in the dark. Rank-and-file lawmakers receive the hundreds-of-pages-long budget document a few hours before they must vote on it. Essentially, it’s voting masked in darkness.

That was then. Now, Illinois has stepped back even further, from the dark into the Dark Ages.

Along with the budget, in a three-day special pandemic session, legislators approved a handful of laws carefully chosen, pruned and crafted by their Democratic supermajority leaders, sent to them not long before they cast votes. Hospital assessments, COVID plans, economic recovery and infrastructure work, wording for the graduated income tax amendment, extending certain laws set to expire, and a limited attempt to boost safe access to the ballot.

Democratic and Republican caucuses had been meeting via videoconferencing, but some said they were getting little information about what would make the cut for the three-day session.

Those seven topics constitute the entire list approved for voting. A limited group of journalists could be present to watch. A limited number of lobbyists could watch from meeting rooms, safely socially distanced.

Safety is, of course, critical. And if you’ve lost your job or aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from, then this might be the least of your concerns. But having a regularly functioning, representative democracy does matter. It matters even more in a crisis like this.

Illinois political leaders should be working to figure out how to continue operating safely and in the spotlight with public input, lobbyists’ input and advocates’ input, with plenty of debate and journalists asking questions of all of them, not just of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his aides.

The polarized U.S. House and Senate managed to pass a few massive pandemic relief packages, while Illinois’ legislative leaders sidelined their members. And the U.S. House approved remote voting for the first time in its history. Shouldn’t Illinois lawmakers have done something similar? Shouldn’t they be planning for that now?

As it stood, for the more than two months lawmakers were not allowed to convene in Springfield, legislators could not even indicate they supported bills on file because doing so in Illinois requires getting a signature on a piece of paper from a bill’s sponsor and physically handing that piece of paper to a staffer to enter into the official record.

One of the critical challenges we face now is how to ensure everyone who wants to can safely vote in November. Gearing up to mail ballot applications to voters from the 108 election administration authorities in Illinois is not something that can be done with the flip of a switch. What about making sure people receive ballots in the languages they best understand? What about getting ballots to residents who tend to move a lot or who are homeless or hospitalized? How are we going to ensure we have enough physical polling places that are safe and properly staffed? This is just one challenge that would benefit from input from many people and many communities.

This pandemic will be with us for some time to come, so the powers that be ought to be figuring out how to hear from more voices, how to encourage safe debate and testimony, how to provide greater lead time before meetings and votes are called so more of us can participate.

Important policies, plans and decisions need to be made about our debt, our public pensions, a Chicago casino, environmental and energy provisions, ethics and corruption, criminal justice, remote learning and much more. If a divided U.S. Congress can figure it out, surely Illinois can. This is not the time to retreat to the Dark Ages. It’s the time to zoom toward a modern, digitally relevant, representative democracy.

This column was originally published by Crain’s Chicago Business.