The Policy Shop: Illinois 1 of 8 states still under COVID-19 orders

The Policy Shop: Illinois 1 of 8 states still under COVID-19 orders

This week’s Policy Shop is by Joe Tabor, director of research at the Illinois Policy Institute

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, many states’ governors turned to their emergency powers for logistical, funding and economic relief. Now, 38 emergency orders and nearly three years later, Illinois is still operating under emergency powers. Illinois is one of just nine states nationwide still calling the COVID-19 pandemic an emergency, with eight of the nine led by Democratic governors.

The non-emergency emergency: Illinois is one of just nine states still operating under emergency powers. When the newest proclamation ends, Gov. J.B. Pritzker will have held emergency powers for 1,060 of 1,483 days in office, or over 70% of his tenure. With no clear limits on how long the governor can continue running the state this way without legislative oversight, this could be the new normal.

In the early days of the pandemic, Pritzker’s use of executive emergency powers to deal with the virus was understandable. By their very nature, legislatures are deliberative bodies that tend to move slowly. Executives are given emergency powers precisely because they can act more quickly and decisively than the legislative branch.

But Illinois has lived under Pritzker’s emergency powers for too long.

Never-ending? Illinois doesn't have gubernatorial term limits, so if Pritzker continues to be re-elected and there is no limit to emergency power use, it could spell disaster for oversight in Illinois.

Pritzker’s emergency powers include, but are not limited to, the following items cited in the governor’s orders so far:

  • To suspend any provisions of regulatory statute that would prevent, hinder or delay necessary action by the state or state agencies.
  • To utilize all available resources of the state government reasonably necessary to cope with the disaster.
  • To redirect state departments or agencies toward disaster response purposes.
  • To control the movement of persons and occupancy of premises within the disaster area.
  • To provide temporary emergency housing.
  • To control, restrict and regulate the use, sale or distribution of food, feed, fuel, clothing and other commodities, materials, goods or services.

Though the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act limits Pritzker’s disaster proclamations to 30 days, he has been able to issue new proclamations each time the previous one expires. He’s declared a statewide disaster 38 times.

Solution: The legislature has provided little to no oversight of Pritzker’s emergency powers. That’s because unlike other states, Illinois law does not give them such a role. To curb Pritzker’s emergency executive orders, lawmakers would need cooperation from the governor or a veto-proof majority.

That needs to change.

The pandemic caused many states to revise emergency power rules. Among those, both Arizona and Virginia enacted laws in 2022 giving the legislature more oversight of executive powers.

Illinois General Assembly: The General Assembly should have the power to terminate Pritzker’s emergency powers by a joint resolution passed by both chambers, as is the norm in most states. The governor was not meant to rule by executive order and emergency powers forever. Despite the governor’s emergency powers, the General Assembly has authority only it can exercise. In general, only the General Assembly can appropriate additional state funds for the response. Legislators could even expand the governor’s emergency powers in response to the crisis if they thought it necessary.

But to do any of that, they need to end their passive acceptance of Illinois being declared a disaster zone 38 times. One-man rule is not how democracy is supposed to work.

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