Pattern of Late-Night Finishes for the Illinois General Assembly Raises Transparency Concerns

The ILGA ends almost every session past its deadline. Is it by design?

Illinois State Capitol. (Randy von Liski/Flickr)

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The spring legislative session in Springfield, Illinois, ended earlier this month — 6 a.m. Saturday, April 9, to be exact — but not without lawmakers taking the fight over votes through the Friday, April 8, deadline and into the early-morning hours of the weekend.

The main legislation that pushed the General Assembly into overtime? The state budget.

“The budget bill when it gets dropped is close to 3,000 pages,” said Bryan Zarou, the BGA’s director of policy. “Historically, it’s been dropped a couple of hours before they pass it.”

This year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Illinois Senate President Don Harmon announced a finalized budget Thursday, April 7, a day before the session was to end.

“But the actual budget was released the next day,” Zarou said. “So you don’t really know exactly what's in there. … There’s a lot of hidden things in the budget.”

So we’re left with a show of bureaucratic ploys — last-minute votes and gavel-hitting ruckus to bring the session to a close.

Does it have to be this way?

Injustice Watch Editor Jonah Newman raised his curiosity on Twitter about the seemingly gimmicky tradition, quote-retweeting NPR Illinois government and politics editor Hannah Meisel’s visual post declaring an early-morning budget presentation by Rep. Greg Harris.

We wanted to look into this and see whether we can get some clarity on why the legislative process, particularly here in Illinois, proceeds to close in a chaotic eleventh-hour fashion.

What you should know about the Illinois General Assembly

The Illinois General Assembly consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate. There are 118 members in the House and 59 members in the Senate.

Welch and Harmon are part of the Democratic Party, which has controlled both chambers for decades.

These representatives and senators share the responsibilities of enacting, amending and repealing laws. They also pass resolutions, adopt spending bills and examine proposed legislation.

Legislators meet every year in January and are in session until or beyond their May 31 deadline. They also meet for a special session — a veto session — in the fall to go through bills vetoed by Pritzker.

However, this year, the Democrat-majority assembly decided to bring the session to an early close Friday, April 8. It was a decision made by the Senate president and the House speaker, according to Charles Wheeler, an NPR Illinois analyst and former director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

One reason for the truncated session this year is to give lawmakers time to campaign for reelection. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill to delay the 2022 primaries to June 28 because of COVID-19 delays on the congressional redistricting process. Typically, primaries are conducted in March.

Lawmakers would still be in session while facing contenders in a reelection campaign, Zarou said.

“Incumbents who don’t usually have any sort of challengers have challengers,” Zarou said of this year’s election cycle.

What you should know about the Illinois legislative process

Getting bills introduced and signed into law can take some time.

So what’s the process?

If there’s an idea for a law, a bill gets drafted. Once the draft is filed and receives its bill number, it must be read on three separate occasions in the House and the Senate. The bill is first read in the chamber of its sponsor.

The Illinois House of Representatives’ Rules Committee then assigns the bill to a particular committee for more careful consideration. For instance, bills regarding revenue are typically assigned to a finance committee, while bills regarding police matters are assigned to a criminal justice committee.

A senator or a representative sponsoring the bill then works for its passage through the committee process. Sometimes bills must pass through several committees before reaching a full vote on the floors of both chambers. Often, leadership exerts its displeasure with a certain proposal by not letting it out of the Rules Committee at all.

Here is a flow chart of the Illinois lawmaking process, which the ILGA provides in its member handbook. (ILGA)

All bills need 60 votes to pass in the House and 30 in the Senate before they are sent to Pritzker to sign into law.

The governor can either sign it, veto it, veto only certain parts or not do anything. If Pritzker does nothing, the bill automatically becomes law in 60 days.

It takes a three-fifths vote in both chambers to override and veto the governor.

So, why is there a holdup to close a session if the Democratic Party holds the majority?

There are many reasons why the last-minute budget votes benefit lawmakers. The lack of transparency makes the process less contentious, making it more difficult to mount cohesive opposition. Often, pork-barrel projects designed to help lawmakers back home are slipped quietly into the bills, and once a budget is passed into law, it becomes difficult to untangle later on.

According to Zarou, it would not be practical for leadership to finalize bills and give their opponents more time to dig in.

“First, there’ll be so many different interests coming and saying, ‘Nope, we’re not doing that,’ [or] ‘We’re not doing this,’ Zarou said. “It doesn’t give them enough time to organize against it. And they know they don’t have a lot of leverage when there’s a few hours left.”

With a Democratic majority, the House and the Senate do not necessarily need votes from a minority party to get bills passed, but that doesn’t mean there is a smooth path to getting bills passed in a timely fashion.

Democratic Party, Republican Party or any other political affiliation in between — no party is a monolith.

Harmon even told daily political newsletter CaptiolFax’s Richard Miller days following the adjournment that he’d “like to ‘avoid’ adjourning session in the wee hours of the morning.”

Is there a way to change this process? Wheeler said no. 

“There’s nothing that stops [the governor] from blowing past the deadline or for [the assembly] from coming back [into session],” he said.

How can you keep up with the General Assembly?

It can be hard to follow the fluctuations of the legislative process, but if you want to follow bills, visit the Illinois General Assembly website, Wheeler recommends.

He also suggested the Civic Federation and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

And you can follow the Better Government Association. We have a soon-to-be-launched “BGA OpenGov” webpage that will track bills, provide resources on the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meeting Act, among other resources you may find useful in better understanding city and state government and politics.

Do you have questions or insight about the Illinois General Assembly? Share your questions and experiences with us. You can find our form below.

If you’re interested in learning more about the inner workings of Chicago and Illinois government through a future BGA Watchdog Training or community event, we want to hear from you.

Image Attribution: "Illinois State Capitol Building, Springf" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by myoldpostcards

Updates

Correction: A previous version of this piece erroneously stated that a veto override of the governor took two-thirds of votes in the House and Senate. We regret the error.