Dems’ $42B Budget Plan Held Back From Pritzker As Energy Deal Stalls — Again
While many Illinoisans spent Memorial Day off from work or maybe at a barbecue, Democrats in the General Assembly introduced, debated, altered and voted to pass a $42 billion dollar spending plan in just 24 hours early Monday into early Tuesday morning.
The new state budget, which is slated to take effect July 1, is aided by billions in federal stimulus money and free from the difficult spending cuts in areas like social services that Gov. JB Pritzker has warned about since voters rejected his signature graduated income tax hike in November.
But the final version of this “easy” budget — at least as defined by Democrats who control the process — came together in the waning hours of the legislature’s regularly scheduled May 31st spring session, just as a tentative deal on major energy legislation fell apart.
Though the size and scope of a potential state subsidy to nuclear giant Exelon to prevent the company from closing three of its power plants had been the sticking point for weeks and stood at impasse for part of the weekend, Monday evening’s imbroglio shifted to resistance from municipally owned coal-fired plants to mandates for phasing out those facilities before their estimated end of life.
Early Tuesday morning after Senate Democrats approved the budget, Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) — whose office has been heavily involved in negotiating the energy bill — used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent the spending plan from getting sent to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk. Harmon spokesman John Patterson on Tuesday morning said it was a "procedural move to protect our accomplishments from any political shenanigans."
"We are tremendously proud of what this budget accomplishes and look forward to delivering it to the governor to sign," Patteron said.
House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) dismissed the chamber after 2:30 a.m., with a few major items still unfinished, including technical but necessary fixes to a major criminal justice package pushed for by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in January. But House members may reconvene in Springfield soon, pending the outcome of the omnibus energy deal.
Business left undone
The Senate is slated to gavel in mid-morning on Tuesday and could take up legislation that, among other things, would allow for limited sports betting on in-state college teams — a provision left out of Illinois’ sports betting legalization law passed two years ago after strident pushback from university athletic directors — but only at casinos.
Over the weekend, Democrats in the House narrowly approved a measure giving the Illinois State Police resources and abilities to clear the state’s massive backlog of Firearm Owner Identification Card applications, a long-running issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as gun ownership picked up and the ISP scrambled to figure out a socially distanced workflow. In March, the Illinois State Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to clear the queue.
But the proposal pushed by suburban House Democrats on Saturday includes mandatory fingerprinting for all Illinois gun owners — an approach Democrats in the Senate are not keen on. That legislation was held in the House even after its passage, rendering it unable to move to the Senate.
Instead, with just a few hours of regularly scheduled session to go on Monday night, Democratic senators passed their competing bill that includes many of the same provisions as the House Democrats’ version, but without compulsory fingerprints for all FOID card holders — a major sticking point for the influential Gun Violence Prevention PAC. Gun rights organizations, on the other hand, have made it clear they’ll file yet another suit if Gov. JB Pritzker signs a mandatory fingerprinting proposal into law.
Legislative records indicate the measure was being teed up for debate and passage Monday night but bill was never called.
Inter-caucus disagreements are a reality of political life, but Welch and Harmon had all eyes on them during their first spring legislative session as leaders together. Harmon was elected Senate President in Jan. 2020, but two months later, COVID hit Illinois and his first year leading the Senate Democrats was highly unusual and included a limited amount of legislating while following stringent pandemic protocols.
Welch became the first Black Illinois House Speaker a year later when longtime Speaker Mike Madigan lost key support of his own House Democratic members as a federal corruption probe swirls ever-nearer to “Public Official A” — the moniker federal prosecutors gave Madigan in charging documents against electric utility Commonwealth Edison last summer. Though ComEd acknowledges its former lobbyists and executives orchestrated a years-long bribery scheme benefiting Madigan, the former speaker has not been charged.
In a middle-of-the-night press conference Tuesday morning, Welch spun the daylight between himself and Harmon as a byproduct of diversity among Democrats — a trait that breeds strength, he claimed.
“We're not going to always agree; sometimes we disagree,” Welch said. “And that's because of our great diversity. We have to be proud of that. And I don't want to discourage disagreement, because disagreement actually sometimes makes you stronger. I think that's extremely important part of democracy.”
The budget-making process was not a bipartisan affair this spring nor last, which roiled Republicans during lawmakers’ extremely truncated COVID legislative session last May.
Though anger at Gov. JB Pritzker for his unilateral handling of many pandemic-related issues — especially unemployment insurance delays and complications — crosses party lines, Republicans have been far more vocal about the governor’s missteps. Also elevating tensions was a hard-fought campaign against Pritzker’s signature graduated income tax constitutional amendment last year, which voters rejected, and the hyper-partisan once-in-a-decade legislative redistricting process.
And another election year is just around the corner, though legislation pushed by Democrats moves Illinois’ usual mid-March primary election to late June next year. The change is due in part to Democrats holding off on drawing a new Congressional district map this spring along with legislative maps and redistricting the Illinois Supreme Court map for the first time in nearly 60 years.
When budget bills were rushed to the House floor shortly before midnight, House GOP Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) again grew frustrated with the majority party, whose budget negotiators earlier in the day acknowledged only Democrats’ pet infrastructure projects were included in appropriations.
“I had hope this year – hope for a new day in Springfield,” Durkin said, repeating a phrase he’s used dozens of times since Welch replaced scandal-embroiled Madigan in January. “I just couldn’t have been more wrong based on what’s happening tonight.”
Earlier on Monday, Democrats finally made public a long-awaited proposal strengthening ethics legislation as U.S. Attorney John Lausch's investigation grows. The new language came five days after Madigan's longtime chief of staff and political right-hand man was indicted for perjury after allegedly lying to a grand jury about what he knew about Madigan's dealings with ComEd.
While the ethics legislation fine-tunes a few points in state law on lobbying and strengthens lawmakers' economic disclosure mandates, it doesn't go nearly as far as what the General Assembly's own watchdog has asked for.
State Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) claimed the new standards include gaping loopholes to allow, for example, lawmakers to become lobbyists shortly after leaving the legislature…something Pritzker has consistently said he wants to ban.
"I'm gonna vote for this because we've got some tiny pieces of very small steps in the right direction, but the public and this body should demand much better than this," Bourne said.
Five House Republicans voted against the measure.
Asked by reporters at the 3 a.m. press conference about his relationship with the Republican leader, Welch said he has “great relationships” with many GOP colleagues, though didn’t answer if he’d still get breakfast with Durkin.
“There's going to be some things that we disagree on — we’re Democrats and they’re Republicans; our core values are different,” Welch said. “There's going to be times where we could find the things that we agree on and work together on those things. There were many instances of those in this session. But we are Democrats and they’re Republicans. By nature, we're going to disagree.”
The new budget spends about as much as the state does this year, but revenue sources are wildly different given Illinois’ stronger-than-expected economic recovery from COVID and billions in federal stimulus funds. Democrats congratulated themselves for self-proclaimed fiscal restraint, but Republicans rolled their eyes and voted against the spending plan.
The day after Pritzker’s graduated income tax failed at the ballot box, the governor gave a grim warning.
“There will be cuts,” the governor said with a sigh on Nov. 4. “And they will be painful.”
At that time, Illinois was seeing a rapid rise in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths as the pandemic’s second wave hit the state, forcing restaurants, bars and other businesses to close, further impacting Illinois’ bottom line with reduced revenues.
But six months and 5.2 million fully vaccinated Illinoisans later — not to mention $8.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds directly to the state — Illinois’ fiscal position is much better than imagined.
House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who leads budget discussions for House Democrats, said “the world has changed in these last couple of months,” and revenue has risen commensurate with people’s comfort levels.
“[Democratic lawmakers and staff, along with Pritzker’s office] worked very hard to use every other lever and technique at our disposal to prevent cuts,” Harris said. “We wanted to be sure we weren't cutting our cities and towns, we weren't cutting our school districts, we weren't cutting our hospitals, we weren't cutting our daycares…We wanted to keep people going, and we found a lot of ways to do it.”
This winter, Pritzker recommended nearly a billion dollars’ worth of what he calls corporate tax loopholes be eliminated. Democrats only ended up cutting about half of those tax credits, preserving a popular tax credit program for private school scholarship donations, but reinstating the corporate franchise tax, which he helped repeal two years ago.
This story has been updated with a comment from Harmon's spokesman.