by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

June 1, 2021

SPRINGFIELD, IL — Illinois lawmakers stayed up to the wee hours Tuesday in Springfield, passing a budget proposal and other bills.  Legislators did not get around to debating the proposed $42.2 billion budget until after 11:30 p.m. and passed the bill at 2:30 am.

The bill will now be sent to Gov. Pritzker for signature.  In addition, lawmakers passed a comprehensive election bill that includes relocating the primary from March 15 to June 28 next year.  They also approved a package of ineffective ethics reforms for legislators.

Illinois lawmakers began putting together a state budget on Monday, based on tax revenue sources that have recovered much faster than expected from the global pandemic, as well as $2.5 billion in spending from a multiyear federal relief package.

The plan put together on the last day of the spring session incorporates only a portion of the $8 billion in COVID-19 relief money Illinois expects from Congress last winter – but that pot includes $1 billion in additional construction projects, a fund that was only known to Democrats until Monday.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris declared a balanced budget, which includes the $350 million extra for public schools promised in a 2017 school-funding overhaul, but which Gov. Pritzker initially said would have to be skipped for the second year in a row.

In comparison to the rest of the legislative agenda, which had to be completed by midnight, after which adopting legislation required a three-fifths majority vote, the budget was expected to be a relatively easy lift.  Following the deadly 2019 Aurora warehouse shooting, there was a contentious plan to tighten gun ownership restrictions, as well as a pandemic-interrupted ethics overhaul that appeared in bipartisan form early Monday evening.

The Senate proposal would prohibit sitting legislators from lobbying other government units, a practice exposed in a fall 2019 bribery indictment, and establish a six-month cooling-off period to end the long-despised practice of a legislator resigning one day and lobbying ex-colleagues the next.  However, Chicago, which has its own program, is exempt from the creation of a statewide registration system for lobbyists at all levels of government.  The conflicting systems opening loopholes prompted a question from reporters attending a briefing on the measure.

The budget plan paints a much brighter picture than the “pain” – deep budget cuts – that Pritzker predicted would be unavoidable after voters soundly rejected his proposed constitutional amendment in November, which would have allowed for a graduated income tax system that would have taxed the wealthy more harshly and generated an extra $3 billion per year.

The ballot initiative was denounced by Republicans as a blank check for free-spending Democrats, who control both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship.  They persisted in their claims that Pritzker had more than enough money as revenues continued to exceed expectations.

Their reward was a promise from Pritzker to cut fewer of the business and job-creating incentives they negotiated with the Democrat in 2019, tax breaks that the governor lauded at the time but now refers to as unaffordable “loopholes.”  To raise $636 million in additional revenue, Democrats drafting the budget planned to cut three programs.  Pritzker proposed eliminating eight incentivized spending programs in February.

Illinois’ allotment of the American Rescue Plan Act would provide $1.5 billion to pandemic-affected areas of the state.  Hundreds of millions of dollars would be set aside for the Department of Human Services to help the homeless, prevent suicide, counsel schoolchildren through the trauma of the previous year, and provide services “for our first responders who have gone through a year of hell and deserve all the support we can give them,” according to Harris.  The tourism and hospitality industries, which are in bad shape, would receive $528 million.

Illinois borrowed $5 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits to those who were displaced as a result of the pandemic.  ARPA would contribute $100 million to cover the interest on the loan, but principal repayment would be deferred.

However, another massive debt has been paid off.  At the height of the pandemic last summer, the state owed $1.2 billion on a $3.2 billion federal loan, which was due in December 2023.  Pritzker and legislative leaders announced ten days ago that they would pay off the loan early to save $100 million in interest.

In addition to the ongoing $51 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure plan approved in 2019, the ARPA cache is providing $1 billion for additional construction projects leading up to the 2022 election season.

House Republican budget negotiator Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon questioned Harris on how projects are chosen.   It is the “normal process,” according to Harris, for legislators and state agencies to make requests for work to be done.

Frank Conklin, Illinois Political Columnist for The Chicago Times.  Views and comments expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Chicago Times.

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