SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate was poised for a vote late Thursday on a $50.6 billion state spending plan — an altered version of what Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state legislature’s Democratic leaders had presented as a done deal a day earlier.
The process for approving the budget has been slowed as Democrats, who control the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature, face economic uncertainty after a couple of years of record revenues thanks to a strong job market and spending stimulated in part by pandemic relief money.
“In the past two years we’ve had money, like, coming out of our ears,” said Rep. Margaret Croke, a Chicago Democrat who is part of the House’s moderate caucus. “We’ve been very flush with cash, and this is the first year we’ve had to take a hard look at the budget and make some tough decisions where there are both winners and losers, and unfortunately there are always going to be some people who don’t get what they need.”
Late Thursday afternoon, Senate Democrats introduced a tweaked version of the spending plan unveiled the previous day. The Senate adjourned late Wednesday night without taking an expected vote on that deal.
Lawmakers in the House met privately Thursday afternoon to discuss the initial plan, which had not been shared with rank-and-file lawmakers in full before Pritzker stood before reporters with Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside to announce they’d reached an agreement. They indicated that they expected the budget to pass through both chambers without significant changes.
Having already blown a self-imposed deadline to pass a budget last week, Senate Democrats were hoping to move the plan Thursday, while House Democrats planned to work into the weekend to send it to Pritzker ahead of a deadline next Wednesday to pass a budget with a simple majority.
Asked about the delayed movement on a deal Pritzker seemed so confident about a day earlier, the governor’s office on Thursday put the onus on lawmakers. “The legislative schedule is set by the respective chambers,” Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough said.
House Democrats have acknowledged that caucuses representing different racial and ethnic groups and political ideologies within their record 78-member supermajority each have priorities they’re trying to get addressed in the budget, and the challenge has been balancing those requests with the need to stay within the overall spending level agreed upon by Pritzker, Welch and Harmon.
Democrats also have had to grapple with skyrocketing costs in a program that provides Medicaid-style health benefits for immigrants who are in the country without legal permission or otherwise don’t qualify for the traditional insurance program for the poor.
“There’s also been the issue of federal funding getting cut and organizations looking to the state to fund that, and unfortunately we can’t make up all those gaps,” Croke said. “And I’m sure, for a lot of people, they’re hearing that from their constituents that they want those gaps covered.”
While Croke said dissension within the Democratic ranks has eased over the weeks, other party members privately acknowledged a lively debate over competing budget priorities, particularly after the announced budget deal increased spending for the immigrant health care program by more than $300 million from Pritzker’s initial budget proposal, which had pegged the price tag at $220 million.
There also have been differences over whether to extend a $75 million tax credit program for private school scholarship donors, which was left out of the agreement among the top Democrats.
On Wednesday, the Pritzker administration highlighted elements of the budget including an additional $100 million for Monetary Award Program grant funding for college students; an increase of $100 million in higher education funding; and an increase of $85 million to support homelessness prevention, affordable housing and other programs related to a vision of “ending homelessness in the state.”
The proposal also includes an additional $200 million to the state’s underfunded pension plans on top of the $9.8 billion required under state law.
The governor’s office also emphasized a $20 million investment in a new Illinois Grocery Initiative to expand grocery access to urban neighborhoods and rural towns.
The more-than-3,400-page budget plan, filed by Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat and the Senate’s chief budget negotiator, also included $15 million for the state’s violent crime witness protection program, which is half of the $30 million that Pritzker proposed for the program in February.
The program is the result of 2013 legislation that called for the state to provide aid to law enforcement agencies to relocate witnesses of violent crimes if they are at risk of danger, but it didn’t get funded until Pritzker allocated $30 million for it last year. On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which administers the fund, said the program was still being organized.
Also in the budget was a $30 million appropriation for a fund that distributes money to police departments for body cameras and squad car dashboard camera systems. Another $10 million goes to departments to hire and retain police officers, and $4 million was set aside for their firearm ballistics technology.
Another $15 million was also set aside for grants associated with a youth summer jobs program, geared toward especially benefiting young people in Chicago and other urban areas.
The budget also includes a roughly $112 million increase in the share of state income tax revenue distributed to local governments, partially satisfying a request from municipal leaders, including new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.
In response to another request from Johnson, the budget would provide $42.5 million to aid migrants arriving from the country’s southern border. The rejiggered plan that came out Thursday, however, would make that money available to counties and towns statewide rather than just Chicago and other parts of Cook County.
A day after the Senate failed to vote on the budget as anticipated on Wednesday, Sims sought to downplay any disconnect between Democrats in the Senate and the House.
“Just like with any budget, it’s 3,000-page document, so everybody wants to go through to make sure that the terms of the agreement are actually on the paper,” Sims said.
Senate Republicans have been less critical than usual in their comments on this year’s budget talks, in part a reflection of their greater involvement under new GOP leader John Curran of Downers Grove.
But during a committee hearing Thursday morning, GOP Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet raised concerns about the lack of wiggle room within the Democrats’ plan, which calls spending nearly all of the $50.7 billion in revenue the state expects to collect for its general fund for the budget year that begins July 1.
“You’ve only got about $100 million in give between revenue and spend,” Rose said, questioning whether state agencies would come back to the legislature looking for more money later in the year.
Republican Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy said it was “perhaps … a tactical error” for Pritzker and the Democratic leaders to announce a deal before it was finalized.
“It should have been done after the budget was passed,” Tracy said.
Still on the legislative agenda were district maps for Chicago’s new elected school board, which by law is supposed to be done before July 1.
Separately, the House voted 69-35 to send Pritzker a measure that would require lawsuits challenging laws under the state constitution to be filed in either Cook County or Sangamon County, home to Springfield.
Democrats who supported the measure said it was necessary to prevent people who sue the state from trying to get their cases heard before judges who they believe will rule in the favor, while also conserving resources for the attorney general’s office, which represents the state in court.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has been hit with a barrage of legal challenges to Pritzker’s executive orders as well as new state laws abolishing cash bail and banning certain high-powered semi-automatic weapons.
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“One attorney was charging people $200 to have their names added as plaintiffs to the lawsuit,” said state Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, a reference to the numerous lawsuits filed by failed Republican attorney general candidate Thomas DeVore.
Republicans, including Rep. Dan Caulkins of Decatur, who has sued the state over the sweeping gun ban approved in January, called the measure a power grab by the Democratic majority.
“They pass unconstitutional laws to make law-abiding citizens criminals, and then they make those same citizens travel hundreds of miles to a kangaroo court that they control,” said Caulkins, whose gun ban lawsuit is awaiting a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court. “Tyrants are always the same, whether kings or lawless Chicago politicians.”
Hoffman, who is from the Metro East area outside St. Louis, noted that the circuit courts in Sangamon County are dominated by GOP judges.
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May 25, 2023 at 08:25PM