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Pritzker Signs Budget After Democrats Approve Massive Fixes While GOP Cries Foul

Screenshot of J.B. Pritzker via Blue Room Stream
Blue Room Stream
Blue Room Stream

Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday signed Illinois’ new budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 after Democrats in the General Assembly this week approved fixes to huge errors in the law that would have prevented the state from spending billions of dollars until June of next year.

"It's been said that a budget is a moral document because it reflects our society's priorities," Pritzker said Thursday. "This year's budget was especially challenging because it comes with the knowledge that we must not only rebuild from our pandemic losses, but also attempt to overcome the structural imbalance that has plagued Illinois' finances for decades."

Though the governor had called for eliminating nearly $1 billion in what he called corporate tax loopholes, the final budget ended up preserving about a third of what Pritzker put on the chopping block. Republicans and the business community, however, accused the governor of breaking promises and refusing to make hard choices about government spending.

With Illinois’ economy recovering from the COVID recession faster than expected, plus more than $8 billion in federal stimulus funds heading to Illinois, this year’s budget process was far less arduous than Democrats had first predicted. Pritzker called the final result “responsible.”

"It's a balanced budget that achieves a level of fiscal prudence not seen in our state for two decades,” Pritzker said. “For the first time since 2001, Illinois is paying its bills on time. We are also paying off pandemic borrowing early, we're meeting our full pension obligation, and we're saving taxpayers tens of millions of taxpayer dollars along the way.”

Budgets — and many other pieces of legislation for that matter — typically contain some so-called drafting errors, which are often cleaned up with small fixes later. But after Democrats pushed through a $42 billion around midnight on May 31 — what was supposed to be the final day of the spring legislative session — Pritzker’s office noticed the budget contained effective dates on many areas of spending that were for a year from June 1.

Pritzker this week issued an amendatory veto to move up the effective dates to the beginning of next month. Lawmakers, in Springfield for two days of session to deal with unfinished business from the spring session, took up the fixed budget Tuesday and Wednesday.

But that was not without incident, as attendance issues for Democrats in the House threatened to derail the process and possibly send the state into another period of operating without a budget — nearly four years after Illinois’ two-year budget impasse under Gov. Bruce Rauner finally ended.

During a truncated, socially distanced session last spring, the Senate last spring allowed members to vote remotely due to COVID-19, so long as there was a quorum physically present on the chamber’s floor in Springfield. But opposition to that idea in the House tanked the rule change in that chamber last May, leaving House Democrats in a bind this week.

Over complaints from Republicans, Democrats in the House on Wednesday approved a temporary rule change to allow for remote voting in order to achieve the 71 votes necessary to accept Pritzker’s amendatory veto. Other legislation the House was taking up also needed a supermajority to pass as the vote threshold increases after May 31.

State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) criticized Democrats on the House floor, claiming they were using a pandemic tool for partisan purposes.

“Only today, when we're in Phase Five and at the end stage of the pandemic, are we making this change to allow remote participation simply because of a significant budget error that has to be corrected today,” Demmer said.

State Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville) was even more forceful in his comments during a debate with the Democrats’ chief budget negotiator, Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago).

“You changed the rules because you screwed up the budget and you didn't...and you couldn't even get your people to show up to vote for the budget that they already voted for,” Davidsmeyer said.

Harris pointed out both Democrats and Republicans were taking advantage of the remote voting option and stressed that changing the rules was a necessity to accommodate lawmakers who were dealing with personal family issues that prevented them from traveling to Springfield.

“If you’re asking that somebody who is dealing with a dying parent and somebody who has a family member who is grievously ill should be forced into making this decision, you can go ahead and say that and I'll have a conversation with you,” Harris said.

A rushed process?

Two versions of the state’s budget surfaced in the wee hours of the morning on May 31, and a final bill wasn’t ready until nearly 24 hours later, when the House quickly voted on it before midnight. The Senate took it up early in the morning June 1.

Republicans this week said the budget blunder highlights the rushed process that doesn’t allow nearly enough time for adequate review on budget legislation that can be thousands of pages long.

State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) noted Democrats often drop “complex and controversial legislation” at the last minute. The GOP has weaponized this complaint in campaign literature, and howled in January when Democrats passed massive bills pushed for by the Black Caucus, including a criminal justice overhaul measure that ended cash bail in Illinois.

“We have a legislative process that is designed to give transparency and allow people to have input in that process but instead of embracing this, what we see [from Democrats] is a continuous desire to operate through an expeditious process, in the dark of the night, without any transparency that results in things like this: chaos,” Barickman said.

State Rep. Mike Marron (R-Fithian) pointed to his experience as a former county board member and suggested the state, like many units of local government, should implement a public comment window before lawmakers vote on the budget.

“Maybe it wouldn't be so easy to pass publicly unpopular items and maybe the sloppy errors in this year's budget would have been caught,” Marron said.

Republicans have suggested a public notice period lasting anywhere between 72 hours to 30 days before a budget vote could take place.

GOP members also complained that Pritzker didn’t use his power of amendatory veto to block automatic cost of living adjustment increases to lawmaker salaries.

Lawmakers in recent years have denied themselves the salary increases, but lawsuits brought by former legislators have ended in wins for those retired members. And earlier this month, a former GOP House member filed a class action suit seeking 10 years of back pay, alleging the practice was unconstitutional.

Still, Barickman said Pritzker should have stood up to Democrats in the House who reportedly wanted the automatic cost of living adjustment.

“Governor, here was your chance yet again to impress upon Illinoisans that you're actually different,” Barickman said. “You could have used your veto authority here and taken care of not only the pork that sits in the budget, but those pay raises that even [Democratic senators] said you don't want, supposedly.”

Hannah Meisel contributed reporting.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.