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Illinois legislators gather, slowly, in Springfield for third session marked by COVID-19 pandemic

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois General Assembly’s 2022 session, the third to be held under the cloud of the pandemic, got off to a slow start Wednesday.

House and Senate chambers were far from filled as things got underway and when the House took roll to start the day, only 62 of 73 Democrats — and no Republicans — answered the call, just barely meeting the minimum 60 members needed to convene. GOP lawmakers came to the floor later Wednesday when the House reconvened after a recess.

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The attendance situation was initially worse in the Senate, which didn’t field enough members for most of the chamber’s business to begin until late Wednesday afternoon.

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 13, 2021.
The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 13, 2021. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

It wasn’t entirely clear why legislators trickled in so slowly, although the week’s calendar was shortened to a single day because of the latest surge of COVID-19 in the state.

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Nonetheless, the day was not without partisan politics as Senate Republicans sparred with Democrats who hold supermajorities in both parties over a Democratic-drawn plan for judicial sub circuits.

After much debate, the bill passed in the Senate along party lines late Wednesday by a 41-16 vote. The House then late Wednesday approved the new judicial sub-circuits on a 66-34 vote, with Republicans unified in opposition.

State Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, accused the majority Democrats of using new judicial maps to extend their control to local across the state.

“It’s not about diversity,” Butler said. “It’s about electing Democratic judges. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no doubt about it.”

Leading up to the vote, Senate Republicans accused the Democrats of rushing the several hundred-page bill through the chamber without enough time for legislators in the minority party vet it.

“We have no statutory or constitutional requirement saying we must redraw these sub circuits today,” said Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods.

But Democratic Senate President Don Harmon said the legislature does have a “statutory obligation” to redistrict and that it’s behind schedule. He also said the legislature has been deliberating the redistricting process for about a year.

“My only wish is that there was more public interest for redistricting than we have seen,” said Harmon, of Oak Park. “We have pushed and pulled and prodded and tried to get more people to participate.”

In a committee hearing earlier, Harmon said the remapping of judicial circuits was needed to reflect the diversity of the population they represent. The proposal, he said, was modeled after a law passed previously that requires judicial redistricting in Cook County.

“If you have judges in an urban county all elected from rural counties outside of that urban center, there could be a real lack of faith in the judiciary,” Harmon said.

Republican state Sen. Jil Tracy, of Quincy, questioned whether the redistricting was necessary outside of Cook County.

“Was any one group or individual pushing this?” she asked Harmon. “I represent areas near some of these counties that are going to be affected. I have never had anyone say that they felt this was necessary or needed.”

McConchie released a statement before the vote saying Democrats have been power hungry throughout this process “at the expense of democracy.”

“As was stated today in committee, partisanship was a factor in drawing the sub circuit maps. Our caucus will not assist in any effort to corrupt our judicial system through partisan gerrymandering,” McConchie said. “If the Democrats want a power grab of our courts, they can do it on their own. The judicial branch, above all, should be held to a higher standard than this sort of politicization.”

The debate was similar to ones that took place last year as Democratic-drawn maps for the state legislature and Congress were pushed through the General Assembly over Republican objections and later signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Earlier Wednesday, the House voted to extend rules allowing legislators to participate in session days remotely through June 1. Remote voting was first allowed in 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic and has been extended as the coronavirus has lingered.

Pritzker’s office disclosed that was working remotely through at least Sunday after having “close contact” with an employee in the governor’s office who tested positive for COVID-19.

“With the Omicron variant spreading across the state, the governor is taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus,” according to a statement from his office on Wednesday. “The governor tested negative for COVID-19 as recently as this morning and is fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.”

Session days scheduled for next week could be held remotely, though neither chamber has formally announced its plans.

Dan Petrella reported from Chicago.

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