Durbin says Illinois shouldn’t count on Washington for future pandemic aid to deal with state’s budget deficit

Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Tuesday touted the benefits a combined pandemic and omnibus spending bill will have for Illinois while also warning Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers not to count on federal funds to help balance a budget filled with deficits fueled in part by a loss of tax revenues caused by COVID-19 restrictions.

In a call with reporters, the state’s senior senator noted the bill included funding for specific programs to help Illinois and Chicago, such as increased mass transit aid, support for airlines, restaurants and entertainment venues, as well as Great Lakes restoration and a first-time grant for federal health officials to study gun violence.

But even with a new administration under former Vice President Joe Biden and the potential of a Democratic-led Senate, pending runoff elections in Georgia, Durbin said the fight for state and local pandemic relief would still run up against Republicans who claim it amounts to a bailout for mismanaged states.

“I wouldn’t make any assumption that money is coming from Washington for the help of the state. They have to prepare their budget on the possibility there’ll be no assistance,” Durbin said.

“This bill … has provided a lot of assistance to states, but not in the substantial sums we were hoping,” he said.

Pritzker has forecast a $3.9 billion deficit for the budget year that ends June 30, attributing about half of the hole to tax revenues lost due to pandemic restrictions affecting business and jobs.

The governor has laid out $711 million in cuts but says that is only a first step and that legislators will have to do more. The state also has borrowed $3 billion under a loan program run by the Federal Reserve, which must be paid back in three years. Pritzker had expected to use direct federal relief dollars to pay back the loan, funding Durbin says he pushed for.

“I was hoping for and insisting on money for states like Illinois and for local units of government like Cook County and Chicago. There was resistance on the other side of the table. They were not accepting,” Durbin said.

“We are not rewarding mismanagement. We’re trying to find a formula that is fair across the board, and we certainly are not solving the pension problems of states. That is not our responsibility and that is not an undertaking which I endorse,” he said.

Illinois’ public employee pensions have the nation’s highest unfunded liability totaling $141 billion — up nearly $4 billion from last year.

“I believe that President(-elect) Joe Biden sees that differently (than Republicans), that it’s going to be a priority for him. And we’re ready for that fight if that’s what it takes to provide this money,” he said.

“The difficulty if we don’t is these units of government will have to lay off firefighters, policemen, health care workers, teachers. That’s exactly the wrong thing at this point in history.”

Durbin was among eight centrist U.S. senators — four Democrat and four Republican — who helped broker the compromise leading to passage of a $900 billion pandemic relief package that includes a $300 federal stipend to unemployment checks and $600 in direct payments to taxpayers along with a variety of aid packages for various industries.

Durbin said as Democrats pulled state and local aid from their demands, Republicans agreed to withdraw their push for liability waivers for businesses hit with pandemic-related lawsuits. Durbin said studies have shown that such cases have resulted in only a few hundred lawsuits nationwide.

Durbin said the bipartisan group, meeting for weeks, sometimes twice a day, could become a factor in the new Congress with the new Biden administration.

“That’s a good thing to have a grassroots bipartisan effort in the Senate. It’s refreshing when you’re stalled for so many years in getting little or nothing done,” Durbin said. “So yes, I think this can be a force for change, whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in charge” of the Senate.

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