Illinois lawmakers should read laws before they pass them
Politicians use a loophole to bypass the Illinois Constitution’s requirement that bills be read on three separate days before they are passed. Instead, they often gut minor bills and put significant legislation in the bills within a day of the vote.
Another Illinois General Assembly has wrapped up by delivering a surprise package: a $46.5 billion state budget passed at the last minute that the public and most state lawmakers have had little time to scrutinize in its nearly 3,300-page final form.
And again, many lawmakers were likely not fully informed when it came to their vote on the state budget. That’s because the budget bill’s substance at the last minute was placed in an insignificant bill to get around the Illinois Constitution’s mandate that no bill get shoved through, but rather be read into the record on three separate days.
Illinois Policy Institute research shows the practice goes far beyond budget bills. Members of the Illinois General Assembly voted on nearly 300 bills that had been amended the same day or the day before in the 2019-2020 session alone. And hundreds of bills were voted on within one day of being gutted and replaced in each of the past five General Assemblies.
Short-circuiting the bill reading process
The Illinois Constitution has provisions to prevent rushed legislation. Article IV, Section 8 of the constitution requires each bill be read on three separate days before it can be passed into law so lawmakers can know what they are voting for. Bills filed are read aloud “by title,” meaning the name of the bill must be read into the record. However, the full text of the bill need not be.
The purpose of this provision is to give all lawmakers a chance to know the substance of the bills before they take a vote. But the spirit of this provision is often subverted through the practice of gutting and replacing legislation, often through the use of shell bills that contain no real substance.
For example, Illinois’ entire fiscal year 2022 budget was originally introduced as a shell bill that read as follows: “The amount of $2, or so much of that amount as may be necessary, is appropriated from the General Revenue Fund to the Office of the State Appellate Defender for its FY 22 ordinary and contingent expenses.”
Lawmakers passed the bill in the Senate and went through two readings in the House before gutting and replacing it with all 3,088 pages of the budget at the third and final reading – leaving lawmakers with zero chance of reading, much less comprehending, the language they were expected to vote on.
That bill ended up riddled with errors, one of which would have prevented appropriations from being spent until a month before the fiscal year would end. Gov. J.B. Pritzker was forced to issue an amendatory veto to correct the error.
It was much the same with the operating appropriation bills during the past five years. With thousands of pages of budget bills being passed without lawmakers having the opportunity to read them, is it any wonder the state has not passed a balanced budget since 2001?
Budgets are typically hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of pages, and lawmakers should respect taxpayers enough to know exactly where the money will be spent before agreeing to appropriate state funds. But the ability to read bills before they are passed is just as important to everyday citizens, if not moreso.
Hundreds of bills got a vote within one day of being amended in the 101st General Assembly
According to an Illinois Policy Institute survey of bills introduced in the 101st Illinois General Assembly spanning 2019 and 2020, nearly 300 bills were amended on the floor – gutted and replaced with new language – on the same day or the day before the bill had a vote on the floor of the chamber. Although those bills did not all become public acts, it means the practice was so prevalent that it impacted nearly half as many bills as were passed into law.
This same trend has occurred in the past five General Assemblies, i.e., the past 10 years. Each General Assembly, hundreds of bills are gutted and replaced the day before a vote in the same chamber.
Other states prohibit gut-and-replace legislation
The Illinois legislature’s evasion of its bill-reading duty should end; it is not the norm in every state. For example, New York explicitly requires bills to be read in their final form in order to comply with its reading requirement. Idaho’s supreme court ruled their three-day reading provision implied a requirement that a whole bill as amended must be read on three separate days. Pennsylvania’s supreme court ruled shell bills cannot be used to circumvent its constitutional reading requirement. And Alaska requires the three readings starts over if an amendment changes the subject of the bill.
In 2021 the good government groups League of Women Voters and Common Cause successfully litigated against the use of gut-and-replace legislation in Hawaii. In its decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court held the state constitution’s three-day reading requirement “necessitates that the substance of a bill must bear some resemblance to earlier versions in order to constitutionally pass the third and final reading.”
A real 3-day reading requirement would help the public hold lawmakers accountable
Illinois, on the other hand, has no real protections against lawmakers voting on bills where they have a conflict of interest, and voters are reliant on lawmakers’ own statements of economic interest and on journalists and good government advocates to hold legislators accountable for their votes. Part of holding lawmakers accountable should be the ability to highlight conflicts of interest before a law is passed.
Activists can highlight ethical lapses after a bill is passed, and there is often some period between passage in one chamber of the General Assembly and passage in the other chamber and delivery to the governor. But legislative momentum is a real phenomenon, and when bills are rushed through, watchdogs are given no opportunity to provide critiques to bills before they gain that momentum.
For example, a telecommunications bill that would allow telephone companies to discontinue landline service in Illinois was rushed through the General Assembly in 2017. The bill was originally a one-line amendment to the Regulatory Sunset Act, but that one-page bill was gutted and replaced with the 369-page telecommunications bill and then passed the state Senate in the same day.
Federal prosecutors are considering charging AT&T’s Illinois subsidiary with crimes involving “a single, nine-month consulting contract in 2017.” According to the Chicago Tribune, investigators are focused on alleged payments to former state Rep. Edward Acevedo made between AT&T and Thomas Cullen, a former staffer of then-Speaker of the Illinois House Michael Madigan. Madigan is currently under indictment for federal racketeering charges involving an alleged bribery scheme with the Commonwealth Edison utility company, wherein the company would hire people close to Madigan in exchange for action on legislation favorable to ComEd.
If AT&T had taken part in a similar scheme, the rushed passage of the telecommunications bill could be seen as the fruits of Madigan’s corrupt dealings. But that bill is only one such example of laws rushed through the General Assembly without giving lawmakers time to read them. The 22-count indictment against Madigan points to his using his powers as speaker to manipulate the legislative process in favor of those special interests taking part in the “Madigan Enterprise.” Rushing a bill through while exchanging favorable legislative action for personal favors appears to have been part of that scheme.
The use of sleight of hand to pass corrupt legislation should be prevented wherever possible, which is another reason Illinois should reexamine the rules for passing legislation in the state.
Illinois should follow the lead of states such as Hawaii and New York. The legislative process should reflect the spirit of the Illinois Constitution and provide lawmakers and voters the opportunity to review the bills that will be voted into law before they pass. Voters deserved the three-day period to read the budget bill before it was passed into law, but again they were denied that opportunity.
The intent of the constitution should be reflected in the law. This could mean a constitutional amendment that forestalls the possibility of a rushed vote on a bill that has been gutted-and-replaced without the approval of a supermajority of members of the chamber. This requirement could also be encoded in statute, or even the House and Senate rules.
However it is done, Illinois voters deserve legislation that has been thoroughly vetted by the members they elect to represent their interests.