Illinois Lawmakers Go Into Overtime, Passing $42B Budget, Election Changes and Ethics Reform

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Illinois lawmakers went into overtime early Tuesday, missing the midnight deadline for the spring legislative session as they worked to pass a $42 billion state budget, major election-related changes and an ethics reform package.

With a legislative session deadline of May 31, anything passed after midnight requires a three-fifths vote to pass, which Democrats hold in both the Illinois House and the Senate, rather than a simple majority.

Legislators worked past the deadline to piece together a $42 billion state budget, which was based on tax revenue sources that rebounded much faster from the coronavirus pandemic than expected and included $2.5 billion in spending from a multiyear federal relief package.

The plan assembled on the final scheduled day of the spring session incorporates just a portion of the $8 billion Illinois expects in COVID-19 relief money Congress approved last winter — but that pot includes $1 billion in additional construction projects, a fund known only to Democrats until Monday.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris pronounced a balanced budget which also reinstates the $350 million extra for public schools that was promised annually in a 2017 school-funding overhaul, but which Gov. J.B. Pritzker initially said would need to be skipped for a second year in a row.

“We’re very lucky our revenues came up," said Harris, a Chicago Democrat.

The state's budget plan this year offers a far rosier picture than the “pain” — deep budget cuts — Pritzker predicted were inevitable after voters soundly rejected his proposed constitutional amendment in November to allow a graduated income tax system that hit the wealthier harder and would generate $3 billion extra a year.

Republicans denounced the ballot initiative as a blank check for free-spending Democrats, who control both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governor’s office. As revenues continued to outpace predictions, they persisted in their claims that Pritzker had more than enough money.

Their reward came in the form of a Pritzker concession to cut fewer of the business and job-producing incentives they negotiated in 2019 with the Democrat, tax breaks the governor touted then but now calls unaffordable “loopholes.” Democrats crafting the budget were planning to cut three programs to generate $636 million in additional revenue. In February, Pritzker proposed eliminating eight incentive programs to save $1 billion.

Pandemic-battered sectors of the state would get $1.5 billion from Illinois' allotment of American Rescue Plan Act. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be reserved for the Department of Human Services for programs to help the homeless, prevent suicide, counsel schoolchildren through the last year's trauma, and provide services “for our first responders who have gone through a year of hell and deserve all the support we can give them," Harris said. The ailing tourism and hospitality industries would receive $578 million.

Illinois borrowed $5 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits for those the pandemic displaced. ARPA would provide $100 million to pay interest on that loan, but principal retirement would wait.

But another huge debt is off the books. The state owed $1.2 billion — payable by December 2023 — on a $3.2 billion federal loan last summer at the pandemic's nadir. Pritzker and legislative leaders announced 10 days ago that they'd pay that loan off early, saving $100 million in interest.

The ARPA cache is also providing $1 billion for additional construction projects heading into the 2022 election season, money that would be spent in addition to the ongoing, $51 billion “Rebuild Illinois” infrastructure plan approved in 2019. Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, the House Republicans’ budget negotiator, questioned Harris as to how projects are chosen. Harris said it’s the “normal process” in which lawmakers and state agencies make requests for work to be done.

“So we have $1 billion dollars of new capital projects that have been available but it appears that they were ... only eligible for requests from Senate Democratic and House Democratic caucuses?” Demmer asked.

Harris responded, “Certainly, we would be happy to talk."

Beyond the budget, several other issues were taken up Monday, including a pandemic-interrupted ethics overhaul which appeared in bipartisan form.

The measure prohibits sitting legislators from lobbying other units of government, a practice exposed in a fall 2019 bribery indictment and create a six-month cooling-off period that would halt the long-derided practice of a lawmaker resigning one day and lobbying ex-colleagues the next. But the creation of a statewide registration system for lobbyists at all government levels exempts Chicago, which has its own program. That raised the question among reporters attending a briefing on the measure about the conflicting systems opening loopholes.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a wall that somebody doesn’t find a way to work around, but this is a good solid step,” said Sen. Ann Gillespie, an Arlington Heights Democrat and chairwoman of the Ethics Committee. “This is extending a ban on lobbying, far greater than it has been.”

Also passed overnight was a measure that if signed, would postpone Illinois' primary next year from March to June.

Senate Bill 825, which includes several election-related proposals, would shift the March 15 primary to June 28 as lawmakers await census data that was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill also includes plans to make curbside voting a permanent fixture, create polling places in certain jails and make the Nov. 8, 2022 general election a holiday, as it was in 2020.

It "establishes new cyber security requirements for election authorities" and "requires every county to have one universal voting center for the 2022 primary and general election," according to Rep. Maurice West, a sponsor of the bill.

Under the proposal, petitions from candidates would begin on Jan. 13 and be filed with the State Board of Elections between March 7 and 14, residents would be able to seek vote-by-mail ballots beginning March 30 and no later than June 23, and in-person early voting would begin May 19 - among other changes.

The measure comes as lawmakers await the release of "block-level" population and demographic data from the 2020 Census, which is not scheduled to be released until mid-August at the earliest.

The data is usually given to states in March each year following the Census, in time for states to use it in the redistricting process. But this cycle's delay puts the data release well after the June 30 deadline for new maps that's mandated in the Illinois Constitution.

Associated Press/NBC Chicago
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