Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, listens during an extended House session at the Bank of Springfield Center, on May 23, 2020. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register)
Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin said Tuesday that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has dealt with the pandemic as “well as anybody” but has “overextended himself” as he continues to use emergency powers without review or action by the General Assembly.
Durkin, speaking at a virtual event for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, also said GOP legislative candidates this fall will need to acknowledge President Donald Trump’s varying degrees of support in the state and focus on the ongoing federal corruption scandal and its ties to House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Durkin, a 22-year House veteran from Western Springs, said he backed Pritzker’s early emergency orders, including the March stay-at-home order for workers deemed nonessential.
“I agreed with him on it because I knew that the virus is for real and we had to see if we could stop the spread of it quickly,” he said.
But, he said, as restrictions began to be lessened in subsequent executive orders, there were things he disagreed with.
“I just had a very difficult time understanding the logic of keeping a Target or Walmart open” while “small mom-and-pops couldn’t open their stores. They were determined to be nonessential,” Durkin said.
“To me, that’s where the governor made a mistake, that we allowed these big-boxes to never stop operations at all,” he said. “He could have found a common ground with the hospitality industry. That’s where most of our jobs have been lost, in the restaurants, where people live ... week by week.”
Durkin contended Pritzker didn’t work with restaurant and retail officials early on “to find a common ground to be able to ensure that businesses would be able to maintain a high level of health and safety but allowing them to keep their cash registers open.”
The House GOP leader, who heads the 44-member minority in the 118-member chamber, also faulted Pritzker for the problems with the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s handling of a record number of benefit applications due to the stay-at-home and business closure orders.
“The governor and his administration, with a stroke of a pen, put about a million people out of work and they, meaning the Department of Employment Security, was not able to keep up with the demand, and I understand that. It’s just an unfortunate situation, but they should have known about that ahead of time that this was going to be a natural consequence and you would have to beef up the unemployment agency,” he said.
Now, Durkin said, Pritzker is “making decisions which I believe are more in the province of the legislature. It does concern me that the governor is overstepping his authority, his executive authority, without having the legislative body, who we all recognize are coequals under separation of powers, be part of this process.”
“I will say that he has handled the COVID issue as well as anybody could under these situations, but it’s the extension of his authority and power under this executive branch — I think he’s overextended himself,” Durkin said.
He noted that Pritzker was exploring new emergency orders to be filed with the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules involving enforcement of mandatory face masks, potentially involving fines, as an example of overreach.
Durkin faulted Pritzker and majority Democrats for pushing ahead on a new state budget that relies on $5 billion in borrowing from the Federal Reserve while lacking significant spending cuts to reflect the economy’s decline due to the pandemic.
“We should not have spent at that level the governor asked for, plain and simple. You don’t ask for more spending when you are in an economic downturn, and that is my biggest fault with the governor and how he’s handled the economics of the state during this crisis,” he said.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to repay that $5 billion that was taken out unless the feds come back and bail us out on that, but I don’t expect that anytime soon,” Durkin said, reflecting deadlocked talks between congressional Democrats and Republicans on a new coronavirus relief package.
As for the Nov. 3 House campaigns, Durkin acknowledged the varying popularity of Trump in Illinois — he’s more popular in central and southern Illinois and less in northeastern Illinois and more urbanized areas — and how that could affect campaigns.
As a result, Madigan will be a top focus of Republican candidates. The longtime speaker was implicated in an agreement by ComEd with federal authorities to pay a $200 million fine for a near decadelong bribery scheme aimed at winning influence with the speaker. Madigan has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has denied any involvement.
“We have to be able to have a very laser-focused campaign for members to talk about — of who (the Democrats) are, what their relationship with the speaker is and how they plan to be supported by him financially moving forward,” Durkin said. “But the speaker is going to be front and center. He has been. He should expect it.”