Illinois Senate approves $50.6 billion state budget as Democrats finally find common ground
The Illinois Senate late Thursday approved a $50.6 billion state budget as Democrats finally found common ground after missing an initial self-imposed deadline and engaging in several extra days of deliberations.
The measure now goes to the House, which is expected to vote on it this weekend.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the budget by a 34-22 vote without any Republican support, although members of the minority party largely toned down their perennial criticisms about being excluded from negotiations. Still, they accused Democrats of ignoring their priorities.
Three Democrats — Sens. Suzy Glowiak Hilton of Western Springs, Patrick Joyce of Reddick and Doris Turner of Springfield — joined Republicans in opposing the spending plan.
Democratic Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago, the chamber’s lead budget negotiator, expressed disappointment at the lack of Republican support.
“We want your partnership,” Sims said to the other side of the aisle before the vote was taken. “But we need your partnership to be transparent and to be authentic. And when it is not, we will do it without you.”
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,” Rep. Margaret Croke, a Chicago Democrat who is part of the House’s moderate caucus, said earlier Thursday. “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 Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislative leaders presented as a done deal the previous day. The Senate adjourned late Wednesday night without taking an expected vote on that plan.
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 moved the vote to Thursday, setting up a potential final vote in the House in the early morning hours Saturday.
Pritkzer praised the Senate’s late night vote in a statement, saying the plan “makes transformative investments in the children and families of Illinois while building on our record of fiscal responsibility.”
“I look forward to the House taking up this budget that will make child care and education more accessible, health care more affordable, and our state’s business and economic position even stronger,” Pritzker said.
Moments before the budget passed through the Senate, Republican Leader John Curran said the Democrats’ inclusion of his caucus in budget talks was “a step forward in our working relationships.” But he indicated that the final product of the budget “does not reflect the entire state of Illinois.”
He criticized the budget for ignoring the “overwhelming call for relief” from tax and utility costs that he believes are “crushing” families and small- and medium-sized businesses following the COVID-19 pandemic. And he said the budget is not friendly to big business, reflecting why companies like Caterpillar and Boeing have relocated offices out of state.
“The budget presented here today undoubtedly represents a further expansion and growth of state government at a time when Illinois itself is contracted,” Curran said.
Before the plan began to move forward Thursday, House Democrats acknowledged the challenge of balancing requests from the various caucuses within their record 78-member supermajority with the need to stay within the overall spending level agreed upon by Pritzker, Welch and Harmon.
Democrats 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.
While Croke said dissension within the Democratic ranks has eased over the last week, 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. Projected spending on the program had spiraled to $1.1 billion, but Pritzker’s office said the proposal gives the administration “tools” to control the costs.
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 budget package approved by the Senate and now going to the House.
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 Sims, 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.
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 for 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.
Also Thursday, lawmakers punted on another outstanding issue. The House voted 69-36, and the Senate followed with a 36-18 vote, to approve a measure extending their deadline for drawing district maps for Chicago’s new elected school board to April 1, 2024.
The deadline had been July 1, but two draft maps were criticized in public forums for not being representative of the diverse student population of Chicago Public Schools.
“The extension gives us more time to ensure that these last-minute submissions are given the thought and the analysis they deserve,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Martwick, vice chair of the committee charged with crafting the map and a sponsor of the legislation creating an elected school board in Chicago.
Also, 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.
“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.