(The Center Square) – “You’re on mute” has been the catchphrase of working remotely during the pandemic and some at the Illinois statehouse are ready to get back to legislating in person.
In 2020, the Illinois State Legislature canceled almost 70 percent of its scheduled days out of fear of spreading COVID-19. Lawmakers in the Senate approved a remote option in the spring of 2020. When they returned earlier this year to finish up the previous legislature, lawmakers in the House approved remote legislating and remote committees.
The problems of being remote were evident to state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, during a virtual committee hearing last week where state Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, D-Naperville, was presenting a bill.
“We can’t hear you, Representative,” Butler said as Rohr’s audio dropped out multiple times.
“Oh, can you hear me?” Rohr asked.
“You know, Mr. Chairman, this underscores the fact of why it would be great to conduct these meetings in person,” Butler said.
The hearing occurred after members had already been in-person on the House floor, but were allowed to video conference in during committee hearings, many times from their offices on the capitol complex.
Butler worried the remote option will become status quo.
“I think we’re going to get past the pandemic and the Democrats are going to say ‘this is an easy way to do business where we don’t have to come to Springfield and we don’t have to see people directly, we can just hide behind our computer screens,’” Butler told WMAY. “I really fear that this is where we’re going.”
Throughout the pandemic, remote legislators have been seen video conferencing into hearings and floor action from their cars, and even one instance of a member being in a helicopter during the action.
State Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, said the remote legislating option was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic and was used by members of both parties. She said some of her colleagues were dealing with COVID or other conditions like cancer and had to be remote.
“If you saw the legislators that were struggling on screen in order to be part of this process, you would perhaps have a different attitude about it,” Turner said.
State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said while there may be legitimate reasons for people to not travel to Springfield, that’s what they were elected to do.
“To me it’s abuse, it’s been abused, we need to all be in person,” McClure said. “If the person doesn’t want to be in person in Springfield then the person should not run for the state Senate or the state House.”
McClure said being remote limits citizens’ and stakeholders’ access to lawmakers. That was evident in hearings for legislative and congressional maps where some community groups had trouble video conferencing in.
Lawmakers return to the statehouse on Jan. 4 where it’s possible they could extend remote legislating.