May 11, 2020
State legislatures across the country are working out how to conduct the people’s business while also maintaining proper social distancing guidelines. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislative chambers in at least 23 states have introduced or adopted bills or resolutions that change rules or procedures in response to COVID-19. Legislatures in at least 14 states have allowed for remote voting or meetings, with new measures being adopted or proposed almost daily. Lawmakers in Wisconsin were already authorized to hold remote meetings during emergencies under a law passed in 2009. Some state constitutions, such as in Alaska and Oregon, require state legislatures to meet in person, meaning a constitutional amendment would be required for remote voting.
At the local level, counties, cities and other local governments have been meeting remotely, but only after executive orders issued by governors that temporarily suspended certain provisions of open meetings laws. However, in Illinois and other states, open meeting laws do not apply to state legislatures.
At the federal level, the U.S. Senate went back into session last week with social distancing guidelines in place, while the U.S. House of Representatives is following guidance from the Capitol’s attending physician and not yet returning to session.
Not all legislative bodies at the state level have agreed on when or how to return either.
In California, the State Senate amended its rules to allow for remote participation during emergencies, but the California Assembly has yet to act on measures allowing for remote voting over concerns it may violate the State Constitution.
Lawmakers in New Jersey, Utah and other states acted quickly when they were previously in session to allow for members to hold meetings remotely. While in other states such as Illinois, the House and Senate, which have not met since March 5, 2020, have taken the approach of cancelling session for a number of weeks without first taking steps to allow for remote participation or voting. Illinois’ fiscal year ends May 31st and the General Assembly has yet to pass a budget for the 2021 fiscal year. While the state legislature has created working groups to prioritize legislation, those working groups have not been open to the public.
In Illinois, it has been interpreted that the General Assembly is prevented from meeting remotely due to language in a state law that says “sessions of the General Assembly must be held at the seat of government” unless the Governor convenes session at “some other place” during an emergency, which could be interpreted to mean some other physical location. The Illinois Department of Public Health issued draft guidelines on how the General Assembly could safely meet in person, but legislative leaders have yet to develop a plan on how they will do so, while also protecting the health and safety of their members and staff.
In New York, the State Senate and Assembly both passed resolutions in late March to allow for remote meetings. However, both chambers only met remotely in late March and early April to pass the state budget.
Other state legislatures have found more creative ways to meet while also practicing social distancing, such as lawmakers in Virginia who met under a canopy and in a museum and lawmakers in Arkansas who held session in a college sports complex.
It is time for Illinois’ legislative leaders to follow the lead of New York, New Jersey, Utah and other states and develop a plan that allows for the General Assembly to safely meet and conduct the business of the people in an open and transparent manner.