State lawmakers have been working remotely since the start of the year because of the ongoing pandemic, conducting the business of government over Zoom meetings. While most lawmakers take the video calls from their offices, some have been debating and voting from sidewalks and cars.
Last week, Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur, virtually attended a House energy and environment committee meeting while driving himself and his wife back to Illinois.
"I was returning from Rochester, Minnesota," said Caulkins. "I pulled over, and we switched places."
That meeting had testimony from Dylan DeBiasi, a representative of Carbon Solutions Group and Neda Deylami, a lawyer with the Sierra Club. They and the other 20 members of the committee present that day were in offices or other indoor locations.
Caulkins said that working remotely has hurt his ability to be an effective lawmaker.
"It's awkward," said Caulkins. "We should be able to meet in-person, spread out and look each other in the eye."
Caulkins added that he thinks the result of remote work isn't "as good of a product" as when lawmakers can meet face to face.
"It's going to be worse when we get to the budget," he said.
When Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and House Speaker Emmanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Chicago, announced on Jan. 14 that the COVID-19 surge would force remote work to continue, they touted some of the benefits.
"Through our remote committee process we have proven that we can get work done, protect people’s health and at the same time expand the legislative process to people who might want to testify but wouldn’t have the time or resources to come to Springfield," Harmon said.
Caulkins is running to represent the newly redrawn 88th district, which includes western Macon County, Clinton Lake and stretches north into parts of Bloomington.
Other lawmakers in both chambers of the statehouse have been taking meetings on the road the past several weeks.
Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, voted on a controversial bill regarding judicial subcircuit maps from a car during the first week of the session, and Rep. Bradley Stephens, R-Rosemont, participated in a transportation committee meeting from a car on Jan. 18.
Though not in a car, Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, voted to approve an appointment to the state's election board at a Jan. 4 hearing while walking outside.
Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, began a meeting on Jan. 5 in his office, but by the end of the meeting, he had already donned a coat and was calling in from elsewhere.
While there is nothing illegal about taking a video call while someone else is driving, the Illinois State Police warn against the person in the driver's seat taking calls.
"Even activities which are not directly addressed as illegal in Illinois law can be dangerous," said Jayme Bufford, a spokesperson for ISP. "Things such as changing the radio station, or picking up fallen items, which take a driver’s vision from the roadway for even a split second, have the potential to quickly become much more serious."
It is illegal for video images to be displayed to a driver in Illinois, though using cellphones or other devices in hands-free mode is OK.
On Friday, the House canceled in-person meetings for another week, continuing remote work until at least the end of the month. In a press statement, a spokesperson for the speaker of the House indicated "cautious optimism" that in-person work would resume for the first week of February. The Senate is not scheduled to meet.
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