The failure of the Illinois legislature to enact a budget by its self-appointed Friday deadline points to stresses within the state’s one-party, big-tent Democratic rule, while at the same time the Republican minority failed to seize an opening to criticize Democratic priorities and overspending.
As lawmakers went home for the weekend prepared to return to Springfield on Wednesday, Democrats continued to publicly project an image of unity as negotiations on a $50 billion spending plan went into overtime, knowing the real deadline — and pressure for enacting a state budget — is the end of the month.
”When we came to Springfield in January, we made it clear that our top priority was a fiscally responsible budget that prioritized hardworking Illinoisans. That continues to be true,” Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside said in a statement in announcing the extra spring session days next week.
”Conversation is ongoing and negotiations are productive. We are committed to passing a good, balanced budget for the people of Illinois,” said Harmon, in his fourth year as Senate president, and Welch, in his third year as speaker.
But several Democratic stress points were evident in the failure to produce a budget on schedule.
They include legislative reluctance to face budgetary constraints after years of a pandemic-relief fueled economy pumping extraordinary dollars into the state treasury, as well as the powerful influence racial and ethnic caucuses hold in dealing with new legislative leadership that wants to avoid the top-down dictating style of former House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Democratic lawmakers also want to avoid making politically difficult decisions affecting powerful voting constituencies after the COVID years during which lawmakers largely allowed Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to control the state with — and take the criticism for — his emergency orders.
At the same time, Pritzker, who has made ambitions for future presidential consideration clear, doesn’t want to be forced to cut programs or make other changes that could damage his political viability or credibility on a national stage.
Difficulties with a budget agreement centered on the ballooning costs and potential expansion of a state-funded health care program for immigrants who don’t qualify for traditional federal Medicaid. Those issues have underscored a variety of tensions that weren’t evident just three months ago when Pritzker delivered the first budget proposal of his second term.
Back on Feb. 15, it appeared a drama-free legislative session was on the horizon and a May 19 adjournment date seemed realistic. Pritzker touted Illinois’ improved financial standing under his leadership, including credit rating upgrades and elimination of a bill backlog that resulted from the debt incurred during an unprecedented two years without a budget under his one-term Republican predecessor, Bruce Rauner.
While calling the state’s financial progress “remarkable” in his budget address, Pritzker also warned lawmakers: “Fiscal responsibility isn’t easy, nor is it a one-time fix. It’s an annual effort that requires persistence.”
Welch, who replaced the now-indicted Madigan as speaker in January 2021, hailed Pritzker’s proposed budget as an indication that “Democrats are united” in attempting to “prioritize hardworking families and continue to make fiscally responsible decisions that put our state in a better position for generations to come.”
Since then, pressure has been added to the budget conversation due to a recent slowdown in tax revenue flowing to the state after last year’s historic levels.
While negotiators aren’t lowering their overall revenue estimate for next year, they’re attempting to proceed with caution in the face of lingering economic uncertainty.
One of the main sticking points in budget negotiations continues to be how to deal with the skyrocketing costs in a program that provides Medicaid-style health care coverage for immigrants who are in the country without legal permission or who have green cards but haven’t completed a five-year waiting period, and therefore don’t qualify for the traditional insurance program for the poor.
The program was created for people 65 and older in 2020 but has since been expanded to cover those 42 and older. Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to cover people 19 and older.
Pritzker’s February spending plan pegged the cost of the program at $220 million, but that figure has since swelled to $1.1 billion, according to the administration, though proponents question that projection.
Democrats have yet to reach an agreement on how to rein in the cost of the program or make room for its full cost in the budget, with neither legislators nor the governor’s office eager to publicly make the first move — though wholesale expansion of the program may be the first casualty.
State Rep. Edgar Gonzalez, a Chicago Democrat and member of the House Latino Caucus, acknowledged the challenge of crafting a spending plan in the face of slowing revenue and said legislative leaders might have been a little overly ambitious in agreeing to a May 19 budget deadline.
Last year, the legislature adjourned in early April due to Capitol construction and a June primary election.
”Everything is just very different this year,” Gonzalez said. “We had (federal pandemic American Rescue Plan) money to deal with and stuff like that. I think there were just some things that were just easier. But now, with different revenue projections … and those numbers changing like every week, it’s made it more difficult to kind of pinpoint and settle down.”
The various internal Democratic caucuses are still meeting and discussing their budget priorities “to see if there’s any overlap,” Gonzalez said.
“Nobody’s ready yet,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot to be worked out.”
But Gonzalez chalked up the extended negotiations to “the democratic process” in a House with 78 Democrats and 40 Republicans.
”That’s what happens when you have so many Democrats too. You have Democrats with different points of view,” he said. “But in the end, the speaker says diversity is our strength. … I’m hopeful, so we’ll see.”
The size and relative inexperience of the Democratic caucus, Welch’s short tenure and a new team of budget negotiators have contributed to missing the deadline Democrats set for themselves, said Democratic Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates, a member of both the moderate and Latino caucuses in the House.
”We have 78 members that represent so many different interests,” Crespo said. “You have experienced members that understand how the system works. We understand that we might want something or need something and it takes a while to get that. We have new members that are experiencing this for the first time. So there’s some growing pains.”
”We have to manage all the members to understand that there’s a finite number of dollars, and there’s only so many things that we can do,” Crespo added.
Crespo said the cost overruns in the expanded immigrant health care program are an example of what can happen when new ideas aren’t fully evaluated through the regular committee hearing process before being approved.
”I think it’s a lesson learned and hopefully moving forward, we take a step back, follow the process, make sure these issues are vetted and put them on the board,” he said. “If it’s for a good cause, if it makes good public policy, it’ll pass.”
Republicans have even fresher leadership than Democrats for their 41 member House and 19 member Senate minorities, and the GOP’s two legislative leaders approached the Democrats’ failure to make their own adjournment deadline in different styles.
House Republican Leader Tony McCombie of Savanna and other House GOP lawmakers held a news conference on Friday, in part, to shame the Democrats for not finalizing a budget by the end of their self-imposed deadline.
”Illinois Democrats have the largest majority in history and yet cannot abide by their own set schedules,” said McCombie, who has been in the leadership role only since November.
Yet McCombie also went into the traditional Republican complaints about being cut out of the budget-making process, and went so far as to say she is already focused on GOP involvement in the budget for the fiscal year 2025, which begins one year from July 1.
Senate Republican leader John Curran of Downers Grove, who has been in the role since January, offered a more muted response. Senate GOP budget negotiators “have been meeting (with Democrats) through the process,” Curran’s spokeswoman Whitney Barnes said in a statement. And, she said, they “plan to continue conversations.”
Christopher Mooney, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago, said he was surprised at Republicans’ failure to fully seize on the budgetary issues brought about by the costs of providing health care to undocumented immigrants, especially given how curbing illegal immigration is a major national GOP talking point.
”This is America, a wealthy country and you can’t just have people dying in the street because they don’t have their papers,” Mooney acknowledged.
”But you have got (GOP) lawmakers with fiscal concerns and they can say, ‘I’ve got people working two low-paying jobs to get to 40 hours a week and they don’t have health care, but we’re giving away to these noncitizens for free?’” Mooney said. ”That is a hell of a good message for Republicans, at least among their base.”
Petrella and Gorner reported from Springfield.
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May 20, 2023 at 05:37AM