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Illinois House expands vote-by-mail but pandemic-era budget plan awaits final day of session

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/22/2020 By Jamie Munks, Dan Petrella and Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune

Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democratic candidate for California Attorney General, sends an email to supporters thanking them for their help and reminding them to vote after casting his ballot in the state's primary election, Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democratic candidate for California Attorney General, sends an email to supporters thanking them for their help and reminding them to vote after casting his ballot in the state's primary election, Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Illinois lawmakers face a hectic final scheduled day of their special pandemic session on Friday, which will include dealing with a budget for the year starting July 1 that will be heavily dependent upon federal aid to fill in the blanks left by a severe drop in tax receipts.

Democrats in the Illinois House on Thursday led approval of one significant coronavirus-related item that is expected to gain Senate support — adopting by a 72-43 margin an enhanced vote-by-mail plan for the Nov. 3 general election. Only one Republican, state Rep. Brad Stephens of Rosemont, voted in favor.

The legislation would have vote-by-mail applications sent to everyone who voted in either the 2018 general election, the 2019 municipal election or this year’s March 17 primary, as well as to voters newly registered since the primary or who changed their addresses.

A state budget proposal remains the major unfinished issue. Legislators are looking at a spending plan aimed at providing at least a maintenance level of spending, with the expectation they will reconvene at a later date to make changes reflecting anticipated federal aid to states and local governments facing revenue declines. The budget proposal also would count heavily on tapping the Federal Reserve for loans.

“We have a sincere hope and belief that there will be help that comes from the federal government, because without it, this state and states all across the nation will end up laying off firefighters and police officers and nurses and so many other people in the services that people need,” Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday from his second-floor Capitol office.

Facing a budget hole of $2.7 billion for the remainder of this budget year and of up to $7.4 billion in the new spending year, Pritzker maintained a state with a long history of fiscal mismanagement and massive public-employee pension debt was not seeking a federal bailout.

“You can’t say as a state, ‘We’re just not going to help people,' ” Pritzker said on a day when Illinois reported an April unemployment rate of 16.4%. “And that’s why we’ve asked the federal government like all the other states for help. We’re just trying to replace the revenues that were lost. This is not anything more than that.”

But there’s no indication when, if or how much direct federal assistance may be forthcoming.

The U.S. House approved the Democrat-written Heroes Act, which includes more than $1 trillion in aid to the nation’s state and local governments, including $915 billion in direct assistance.

But the Republican-led U.S. Senate has said that plan is a non-starter, and GOP leaders want a pause in coronavirus relief while they assess how money for programs already enacted is being spent. The Senate left Washington on Thursday and is on recess until June.

Pritzker cautioned against large-scale social service cuts, particularly when demands for such services has increased in a period of business closures and high unemployment.

“Our job is to take care of people … who are in need, people who are falling through the cracks, people who are in extreme poverty, people who now have lost their jobs, people who need medical care who no longer have insurance,” Pritzker said.

Thursday’s special session presented a mix of lengthy closed-door caucuses by both parties along with hearings and votes on various aspects of the coronavirus-inspired agenda.

GOP state Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia, ejected on a bipartisan vote Wednesday for refusing to wear a mask to display his defiance to Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders, returned Thursday with a mask.

The move by House Democrats to expand the availability of vote-by-mail for this fall’s general election was in part a response to those voters who do not want to risk their health by going to polling places, as was the case for many during the March primary.

Voting by mail in the coronavirus-era has been a point of partisan tension nationally, with President Donald Trump going so far as to threaten to withhold federal aid to Michigan for expanding vote-by-mail applications.

“We don’t want them to do mail-in ballots because it’s going to lead to total election fraud. So we don’t want them to do mail-in ballots. We don’t want anyone to do mail-in ballots,” Trump said Thursday before departing to a Michigan Ford assembly plant.

Trump submitted a mail-in vote to cast his ballot in the March Florida primary from the White House.

In Illinois, Republicans have opposed an expansion of the state’s already liberal vote-by-mail laws. They have contended existing law is sufficient for anyone who wants to vote by mail to get a mail-in ballot.

“I’m not a person that believes in ultimate certainties, but there are two certainties in life,” House Republican leader Jim Durkin said after hours of debate. “One, that we will see the sun rise in the morning, and the second one is that we’ll see voter fraud in November, particularly in Illinois, in robust nature, particularly with this bill.”

The legislation does not go as far as some advocates want since it involves sending applications for a mail-in ballot, not the ballot itself. Pritzker said he personally wanted “more done,” but called the measure “a reasonable compromise.” It would cost up to $16.7 million with the costs covered by federal relief funds, supporters said.

The legislation also creates the option for the local boards to create secure ballot drop-off boxes for people who do not trust the mail.

Additionally, the measure would authorize early and Election-Day curbside voting, and would require the creation of super voting sites within each election jurisdiction to allow people to vote regardless of their precinct. Chicago has had such a system for years.

To encourage more election judges, people as young as 16 would be allowed to serve. The March primary featured a shortage of election judges when many of them, who are traditionally older, opted not to show up amid the coronavirus risk.

The proposal also would set the Nov. 3 Election Day as a state and school holiday, allowing empty schools to be used as in-person polling places. Some private building owners refused to allow their locations to be used as voting sites in March due to fears about the virus.

Republican Rep. Ryan Spain of Peoria expressed concern about the potential for manipulation of drop boxes.

“We are creating a Pandora’s ballot box that I worry will give us a huge opportunity for additional ethical scandals in the state of Illinois,” Spain said.

Sponsoring Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, said the drop boxes were something county clerks have requested, and called it “common practice” in other states with larger vote-by-mail programs in place.

“Some people have a mistrust of the Postal Service, some people just like to know that their ballot is going someplace that they know the next person who touches it is going to be an employee of the clerk’s office,” Burke said.

Republicans also raised questions about the potential of ballot stuffing through harvesting mail-in ballots that were erroneously sent. They also questioned a new provision for a three-person panel, with no more than two from one political party, to review mail-in signatures. The legislation would require all three to agree on tossing a ballot, which some GOP lawmakers said would mean even questionable ballots would be counted.

In the Senate, lawmakers voted 50-4 to approve a bipartisan bill to help coronavirus victims that would make it easier for them obtain worker’s compensation benefits.

The measure, an accord struck between business groups and organized labor, would allow “essential” workers who contract COVID-19 to qualify for worker’s compensation benefits with the assumption that the virus was contracted on the job. The rules, which would expire Dec. 31, apply to first responders and others exempt from Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.

In order to qualify, workers’ jobs would have to require them to come into contact with members of the public or to work in a location with more than 15 employees. The agreement would require anyone diagnosed after June 15 to have a positive test for COVID-19.

The deal, which also would grant line-of-duty death benefits to the families of Chicago police officers and firefighters who die from the coronavirus, still must be approved in the House.

Senators also voted 46-10 to approve numerous tweaks to the law that allowed legal marijuana sales to begin Jan. 1.

Among other changes, the proposal would allow medical marijuana customers to purchase from the location of their choice rather than being restricted to a single dispensary.

jmunks@chicagotribune

dpetrella@chicagotribune

rpearson@chicagotribune

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