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Illinois General Assembly Cancels Veto Session Over COVID-19 Concerns

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Amid a resurgence of the pandemic that has seen Illinois set new daily COVID-19 case records several times in the past few weeks, state lawmakers have canceled plans for the upcoming veto session before and after the Thanksgiving holiday.

"This is not the time to physically bring together hundreds of people from all around the state. Given what's happening, it was an obvious decision. It's not safe or responsible to have a legislative session under these circumstances," Illinois Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said in a statement.

The Illinois Senate and Illinois House both had been set to meet for three days next week, and three more in early December.

However, Harmon and House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) deemed it was unsafe to bring 177 state lawmakers and their staffs to Springfield at this time, pointing to the area's 14.4% positivity rate for COVID-19 infections. Statewide on Tuesday, Illinois set a new daily record with 12,623 new confirmed or probable coronavirus cases.

"The health and safety of the people who work for and serve in the Illinois General Assembly, and their respective families, is paramount. We will continue to monitor the situation, consult medical experts and do intend to schedule additional session days so we can finish our important work," Madigan said in a statement.

State lawmakers typically meet for two weeks in the fall for what is known as "veto session," but are free to debate and vote on any matters they choose. Gov. JB Pritzker has not issued any vetoes for the Illinois General Assembly to consider, so the fall session likely would have focused on the state's budget, the pandemic, and the Legislative Black Caucus' push for social justice reforms.

Pritzker expressed disappointment Tuesday when asked about the possibility the fall legislative session would be canceled, before official word came down.

The governor said he still hopes to meet with the four legislative leaders soon to discuss the state's budget after the defeat of his proposed graduated income tax in last week's election. The governor and the legislative leaders are able to meet even when the General Assembly is not in session.

Pritzker's office had estimated his plan for a graduated income tax would have generated $1.2 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $3.4 billion in future years. The current budget also relies on borrowing $5 billion from the Federal Reserve's Municipal Liquidity Fund, which has yet to happen.

After voters rejected the graduated income tax plan last week, Pritzker warned of "painful" cuts to state services to balance the budget.

"We have so much work to do in Springfield, there's no doubt, and I guess I know why people are concerned about gathering. I am discouraging gathering across the state," Pritzker said Tuesday. "But I must say it would be disappointing [if veto session were canceled]. We just have so many things we need to accomplish, with regard to the budget in particular. We have major efforts underway that will require the legislature's engagement."

Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) said lawmakers will next meet in January for a lame duck session before the next Illinois General Assembly is sworn in on Jan. 13.

Lightford, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus will be prepared to present legislation to address systemic racism. Earlier this year, the caucus unveiled an agenda aimed at ending systemic racism by focusing on four pillars: criminal justice reform and police accountability; education and workforce development; economic access, equity, and opportunity; and health care and human services.

"While we will not be able to pass legislation as soon as we hoped, the urgency to bring an end to systemic racism remains," Lightford said in a statement.

Several Republican state lawmakers criticized the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate for canceling veto session, noting the General Assembly was able to safely meet in Springfield for four days in May to pass the state budget and legislation related to the pandemic. The House met at the Bank of Springfield Center to allow for proper social distancing, while the Senate met at the statehouse.

Lawmakers were required to wear masks, submit to COVID-19 tests and temperature checks, and to observe strict social distancing guidelines.

State Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) said there was no reason lawmakers couldn't meet again this fall under similar rules.

"I acknowledge the health concerns, but have faith in the House staff that was able to execute a May session with no legislators contracting COVID-19 that week. With proper precautions, there's no reason why we should delay or cancel session. Illinoisans are counting on us to do our jobs," Batinick said in a statement. "There is important work to be done; work that includes a serious discussion between the Governor and the legislative branch about how we can best respond to this new wave of COVID-19. We need to be focusing on policy, not politics. It would be a disservice to every resident of Illinois if this cancelation is politically motivated."

State Rep. Tom Weber (R-Lake Villa) also noted no one in the General Assembly contracted COVID-19 during their May session, which he said proves the precautions they took worked. He said it's critical for lawmakers to meet to have a voice in the state's response to the new wave of coronavirus cases, and its impact on the state.

"Unemployment is still failing our residents, FOID [Firearm Owners Identification] and CCL [Concealed Carry License] cards are taking as long as 9 months, requests for contact tracing data and information continues to go unanswered by the Governor, and our local businesses are suffering, especially those the Governor deems non-essential. The Speaker needs to call the legislature to veto session so we can work together on a plan that respects lives and livelihoods. We must find that balance for the good of the economy and for the good of people who rely on paychecks to support their families," Weber said in a statement. "While other states legislatures continue to meet and conduct business, Governor Pritzker continues to keep legislators on the sideline. It goes beyond reason that emergency powers can be never ending based on what one individual decides. There must be checks and balances, and legislators need to be in Springfield so we can collaborate with the Executive branch. We cannot let politics supersede policy. It sends the wrong message to Illinoisans who already lack trust in the government."

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