Columns

Eye On Illinois: Vaccine resistance, executive power limits coming to a head this week?

“Tacit approval is not appropriate in this situation.”

State Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva, issued that quote at a news conference last week boosting his House Bill 843, an attempt to limit any governor’s ability to issue consecutive disaster proclamations. Conceived as a response to Gov. JB Prtizker issuing nearly 20 successive disaster declarations since March 2020, in accordance with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act, the bill would allow a governor to extend a disaster declaration only through a General Assembly resolution or written approval from three legislative leaders.

Would the state’s pandemic response have been different with this law in place? Or would the Democrats’ 41-18 Senate and 73-45 House advantages have made adopting a resolution a formality?

Of course, it’s not just about the vote, as Ugaste indicated in speaking further about governing by fiat:

“That does not allow for public hearing and debate that the people of the state get to see and hear and know that their viewpoints are being considered and heard by the people making decisions. It’s still just allowing one person to rule and not allowing the people to have their voice heard.”

There’s no shortage of outlets for complaining about Pritzker’s pandemic response. But social media, yard signs and lawmaker press events aren’t the same as public debate inside the Statehouse. Even heated discussions at Joint Committee on Administrative Rules meetings haven’t truly met this standard.

However, Republicans may get their chance during this week’s conclusion of the fall veto session. State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, offered an amendment to Senate Bill 1169, which would change the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to formally prevent people from avoiding COVID-19 testing or vaccination as a condition of employment or access to public and private places.

Without rendering a judgment on the amendment itself, suffice it to say a vote on the proposal would easily represent the Legislature’s most significant foray into pandemic response, putting all its members on the record heading into the 2022 campaign cycle and offering another chance for gubernatorial hopefuls to clarify and defend their positions.

Debate on the amendment also is likely to capture in its orbit the ongoing negotiations between the administration and state employee labor unions. Although bargaining units representing almost 10,000 state workers have already reached terms on vaccination policies, another 20,000 at least might be headed to arbitration.

Though perhaps unlikely, that path carries with it the potential for a schism in the generally reliable bond between organized labor and institutional Democrats. Though once unthinkable, the fault lines involving police unions show such divisions can deepen swiftly and forcefully.

The General Assembly’s week in Springfield may be brief, but it will not be quiet.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.