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Veto Session Canceled As Attention Again Turns To Madigan

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Citing a sharp uptick in Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across Illinois, Democratic leaders of the Illinois General Assembly canceled their planned two weeks of Veto Session late Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Gov. JB Pritzker said scrapping session while the state is in dire fiscal straits “would be disappointing.”

In a statement, Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said that after surveying Senate members, he and House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) concluded “this is not the time to physically bring together hundreds of people around the state.” Harmon called it an “obvious decision” to cancel the planned six days of Veto Session scheduled for next week and the first week of December, quoting the State Journal-Register’s employment of the word “tsunami” of COVID-19 cases on Tuesday’s front page.

But given the heightened pressure on Madigan to step down from his post as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois in recent days after a disappointing election for Illinois Democrats, Republicans on Tuesday alleged canceling session was a protective move by the embattled House Speaker.

“If it’s canceled, I think that’s a strong signal that the Speaker is weak,” said State Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) during a virtual news conference earlier on Tuesday afternoon.

As of Tuesday, eight House Democrats have publicly committed to not voting for Madigan as House Speaker for a 19th term when the new General Assembly is inaugurated in January.

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) last month announced she would challenge Madigan for the speaker’s gavel, but she has not garnered much public support from her any of her House colleagues.

However, Republicans opened the door to voting for a Democrat for House Speaker in January if it meant ousting Madigan — instead of casting their usual ceremonial votes for the House Minority Leader.

State Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) last week survived a well-funded Democratic challenger in a race targeted by Madigan’s political organization.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to turn the state around,” Batinick said. “For me, the one “no: vote is the vote for Speaker Madigan. Beyond that, I would be willing to engage in conversations and negotiations.”

State Rep. Mike Marron (R-Fithian) said he wouldn’t even mind ending up with a speaker politically to the left of Madigan.

“I’d be happy to take the risk of a more progressive member getting in charge just to have a fair fight in the arena of ideas,” Marron said.

However, Madigan supporters have made their own statements in recent days, praising the Speaker for being a firewall during former Gov. Bruce Rauner's term in office as the Republican pushed his pro-business, public sector union-weakening agenda. Organized labor is among Madigan's most loyal backing, and a reliable campaign funding apparatus for Democrats.

If current vote totals from last week hold, Democrats will have 72 seats in the Illinois House — a net loss of two from the chamber’s current makeup. Madigan needs 60 votes to keep his speakership, a position he’s held for all but two years since 1983. Republicans and progressive Democrats are hoping to pick off at least five more of their colleagues to vote against Madigan.

“I think that this shows that Speaker Madigan — if he chooses to not have Veto Session — doesn’t want to get his caucus together because he has such an issue with not being able to have the confidence of his own caucus,” Bourne speculated Tuesday.

Hours later, Madigan’s chief of staff sent a message to House members announcing Veto Session’s cancelation, saying there was “a strong majority of members who would prefer the House delay convening to a later date” after a survey of members indicated strong concern about a rapid uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations lately.

When asked about the prospect of canceling Veto Session Tuesday afternoon, Pritzker said it “would be disappointing” — a word he used three times to express his position.

“There are so — we just have so many things we need to accomplish with regard to the budget in particular,” Pritzker said. “We have major efforts underway that will require the legislature’s engagement.”

Pritzker last week joined U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth in calling for Madigan’s resignation as chair of the state’s Democratic Party, a job Madigan has held since 1998.

Durbin said Democratic candidates and causes “paid a heavy price” at the polls as Republicans used a well-worn tactic of tying party members up and down the ballot to Madigan. Though state GOP leaders admitted after their lackluster performance in the 2018 midterm elections that swept Pritzker into office — along with a “Blue Wave” of other Democrats — that the Madigan messaging had grown stale, the strategy was given new life as federal agents began poking around in Madigan’s inner circle last year.

So far, that investigation has culminated in a bombshell deferred prosecution agreement filed against Commonwealth Edison in July, identifying Madigan as “Public Official A,” who the utility attempted to influence and curry favor with in its lobbying practices for years. Additionally, the investigation painted a picture of Madigan at the top of a patronage scheme where the speaker’s allies could get contracts and be paid for doing “little to no work.”

One of the casualties of Madigan’s renewed infamy, according to Durbin’s and Pritzker’s telling, was the governor’s push for a so-called “Fair Tax.” The constitutional amendment that would have provided a way to tax Illinoisans at a graduated rate, targeting the wealthiest 3% of Illinoisans for an estimated $3.4 billion in extra revenues annually.

But it failed spectacularly — garnering just 45% of the vote when it needed 60% to pass, or a simple majority of all ballots cast. Pritzker, who had campaigned on the issue since before formally announcing his gubernatorial run in 2017, was visibly angry at a news conference last week, blaming the GOP and well-funded opponents to the tax measure, but also acknowledging their exploitation of a distrust in Springfield politicians to tank the amendment.

“The Republicans and the billionaires that sided with them, were effectively able to use the speaker as their foil and that hurt our ability, our state’s ability, to get things done,” Pritzker said last week.

Now without that extra tax revenue on the way, Pritzker faces an extremely tough state budget, already shredded by the COVID-19 pandemic’s accompanying economic recession.

A canceled Veto Session also delays votes on the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’s package of proposed reforms aimed at racial and economic equity. The caucus has been holding marathon hearings since September, focusing on everything from police reform to educational opportunities and access to healthcare.

In a statement Tuesday, Legislative Black Caucus Chair Kim Lightford (D-Maywood) said she agreed with Madigan and Harmon’s decision to cancel Veto Session.

“We are still in the midst of a pandemic, and COVID-19 cases are surging across the state,” Lightford said. “While we will not be able to pass legislation as soon as we hoped, the urgency to bring an end to systemic racism remains.”

Other items left for 2021 include an omnibus energy bill two years in the making, which promises to overhaul the way Illinois procures energy, prioritizing renewable energy sources.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.
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