In the midst of a global pandemic, despite social distancing, and all while wearing face masks, Illinois state lawmakers approved a new state budget over the weekend totaling $43 billion. But that budget won’t be possible without heavy reliance on the federal government.
Financial experts made dire warnings in just the last year: they all said Illinois would be in a tough spot should a disaster strike.
Little did anyone know a global pandemic would strike right at the heart of economies the world over. Yet state lawmakers who crafted this year’s budget were painfully aware.
Rep. Greg Harris (D, Chicago) made that clear in presenting the final spending plan to his colleagues late Saturday night.
“This is an incredibly difficult year for budget making in Illinois," he said. "People are struggling, families are struggling, our local governments are struggling, our schools are struggling, and yes, we here at the state are struggling too.”
But Harris and others who support the budget said the plan is designed to mitigate a lot of that struggling.
“It is a series of tough choices, but the choice that I’d like to present...is to do all we can as a state to assist those who are struggling around our state and to do no more harm," Harris said.
In reality, Harris and other lawmakers avoided tough choices to some degree by keeping intact much of the previous state spending and by leaning on the federal government. They could borrow up to $5 billion from the Fed to prop up state government this year, with supporters arguing there is little alternative because state sales and income taxes have dropped because fewer people are working and shopping.
In asking his colleagues for the approval to do so, Senate President Don Harmon said the idea already had some high flung endorsements from those who made it possible to do.
“If Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump all think this is a good idea and one that we should employ, we should all vote yes!" he said.
A legislative summary of the new state budget also shows, among other things, where another $2.5 billion in emergency federal pandemic funding will go: some to healthcare centers, some for business grants and child care, and even some for rent and mortgage assistance.
As for who is going to get what from state funding, some will get more and some will get the same as last year.
The Department of Public Health, a major player since the health crisis began in early March, will get $900 million more, two thirds of that going to hire public health workers who will track down people who’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
While the state will pay what it’s supposed to into pension funds this year, schools and public universities will get the same amount of money as last year.
Republican unilaterally opposed the budget plan. Rep. Dan Caulkins (R, Decatur) argued it leans too heavily on borrowing a large sum from the Fed and paying it back over thirty years.
“We are putting this burden on generations of people that will follow us here," he said during a speech on the House floor. "If you think we’re having trouble today paying our bills, think about what’s going to happen over the next thirty years as we try to pay this money back.”
Others, like state Sen. Chapin Rose (R, Mahomet) said they aren’t comfortable with knowing so little about how much money the state is expecting in the coming months.
I would submit humbly, but I think factually, that we have some pretty missing components of that knowledge, knowledge that’s necessary to really do this," Rose said.
But Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth (D, Peoria) defended the plan, telling her colleagues a moving story about how state budgets fund crucial items in her community, like violence prevention programs.
“Many of you may see these lines and these numbers on these budgets, and you look at it like a spreadsheet," Booth said. "But for many communities across the state, those lines, those numbers literally are life and death.”
Chief among the other criticisms was a perennial issue unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic that popped up in the final hours: the legislature had not rejected their annual cost of living hike.
Some lawmakers, like state Sen. Andy Manar (D, Bunker Hill) said it won’t happen because there's no money earmarked for in the budget. But the more cynical might say even with all the changes COVID caused, lawmaker pay is one area where legislative practice may have remained the same.
The two parties were divided on the budget question to the end, but ultimately the majority Dems gave the spending plan the green light.
Governor J.B. Pritzker has indicated he’ll sign it, and when he does, it’ll take effect in July. That’s when more sections of the economy will hopefully be springing back to life, and maybe more money will start flowing to the state.