$41-billion budget, trickier issues face Illinois Legislature on final day

Illinois lawmakers were piecing together a $41.3 billion state budget Monday, based on tax revenue sources that rebounded much faster from the global pandemic than expected and including $2.5 billion in spending from a multiyear federal relief package.

The plan assembled on the final scheduled day of the Legislature’s 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 budget might be an uncharacteristically easy lift, compared with the rest of the Legislature’s to-do list, which must be accomplished by midnight, after which adopting legislation requires a three-fifths majority vote. There’s a contentious plan to tighten restrictions on gun ownership following the deadly 2019 warehouse shooting in Aurora and a pandemic-interrupted ethics overhaul which appeared in bipartisan form early Monday evening.

The Senate proposal would prohibit 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."

The budget plan 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."