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Illinois Democrats struggle to reach consensus on budget

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SPRINGFIELD — The challenges of reaching consensus among the various factions of the big-tent Democratic supermajorities in the Illinois legislature were on full display Friday as lawmakers blew past a self-imposed deadline for passing a state budget and negotiations continued into Memorial Day weekend.

Even with advantages over Republicans of 77-40 in the Illinois House and 40-19 in the state Senate, it took Democrats until late on what was supposed to be the last day of their truncated election-year spring session to introduce the initial version of a more than $50 billion spending plan.

Senate Democrats filed a 3,374-page plan about 5 p.m. Friday but hours later hadn’t held a committee hearing or floor vote, all but eliminating any chance the General Assembly could send the budget to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk in time to be home to kick off campaign season by marching in parades on the Monday holiday with their work behind them.

After several years of unexpectedly high revenues, lawmakers faced perhaps the most challenging budget season since the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was pushback on various fronts to aspects of Pritzker’s proposed $52.7 billion spending plan and accompanying tax increases of more than $900 million.

“We need to make sure the spending priorities reflect the will of the body,” Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said shortly before the budget plan was filed. “And this year, we’ve had to look at a variety of the revenue items the governor proposed. And there’s been some pushback, some suggestions to do things in slightly different ways.

“It requires some nimbleness here late in the game to unpack those and see if they’ll work,” he said.

Flagship spending proposals the governor laid out in his February budget address were part of the Senate measure released Friday, which Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough said reflected “an agreement in principal” among the governor, Harmon and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

A spokeswoman for Welch, a Hillside Democrat, did not respond late Friday to a request for comment. Welch ignored shouted questions from a reporter as he headed into a meeting with House Democrats.

Among Pritzker’s priorities that found their way into the Senate measure were a pilot program to purchase Illinois residents’ medical debt at a discount, which the governor’s office says could fund exponential debt relief for hundreds of thousands of families. Also included were funds for the Department of Early Childhood, the new agency that both chambers voted to create this session.

Harmon acknowledged that all of the governor’s core revenue-raising proposals — on sportsbooks, corporations and retailers — were continuing to meet some resistance among Democrats.

A late-emerging proposal to increase revenue from video gambling terminals at bars, restaurants and truck stops has also received pushback, he said.

That money is dedicated to capital construction projects, and budget negotiators were working through whether to raise taxes on the video poker and slot machines or pursue other options, such as allowing establishments to have additional machines or increasing betting limits.

Asked about Pritzker’s proposed tax increases, Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat, said, “We’ve been looking at a bunch of different options.” But she noted the state is up against many challenges, with underfunded pensions that need attention, as well as a looming $700 million-plus transit funding crisis.

“There’s a lot of different situations that really need attention and the way that they need attention is by money,” Villanueva said. “But I am also a person that firmly believes that we need to be taxing the rich more. And again, it’s a long road to get there.”

Despite ongoing uncertainty, a few details emerged Friday on the discussions between Pritzker and Democratic legislative leaders.

One issue on which there appears to be broad agreement is repealing the 1% statewide sales tax on groceries. Ditching the tax won’t affect the state’s bottom line because the money all goes to local governments.

Pritzker, who included the proposal in his budget blueprint in February, dug in his heels in the face of strong opposition from local leaders who worried about the impact it would have on their coffers.

Eliminating the tax has both progressive and populist appeal in an election year when voters remain concerned about high prices at the checkout line, and it comes after Pritzker and Democrats, along with reluctant Republicans, suspended the tax for a year amid the 2022 election.

The GOP criticized that move as an election-year gimmick, and Pritzker has used that line of attack to argue he took Republicans up on their suggestion to make the change permanent.

Under the budget framework that Pritzker and the Democratic legislative leaders agreed on, the tax would be permanently eliminated on Jan. 1, 2026.

To make up for the lost revenue, municipalities — both those with broader home rule powers to raise taxes on their own and non-home-rule communities — would be granted the ability to levy their own 1% tax on groceries. Towns without home rule would be given the ability to tack on an additional 1 percentage point tax on general retail sales.

Along with other concessions, the proposal on the table was enough to win the support of the Illinois Municipal League, which represents local governments across the state.

“We are pleased with the overall framework of the issues affecting municipalities,” Brad Cole, CEO of the Illinois Municipal League, said in a statement. “Local leaders have long advocated for greater authority to provide for the programs and services their residents rely on every day, which they will be granted under this budget agreement.”

There was also general consensus Friday among Democrats on items such as increasing spending on elementary and secondary education by the minimum $350 million laid out in the state’s school funding formula, said Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Democrat from downstate Swansea.

But other issues were still in flux.

“There’s still discussion on how totally big the budget’s going to be and how we’re going to actually be able to pay for it with new revenues that are coming in and what kind of revenues could we use,” Hoffman said.

Even as the details of the budget were cobbled together Friday, several lawmakers continued to push for specific programs.

Behavioral health advocates expressed concerns about maintaining funding for what they see as vital programs to address difficulties in accessing care and workforce shortages. At a news conference Friday afternoon, several state representatives stressed the need for a $13 million program providing campus mental health services at public colleges and universities throughout the state.

“We are here to remind everyone that we are in a mental health crisis across the lifespan,” Chicago Democratic Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, who chairs the House Mental Health and Addiction Committee, said during the news conference. “Our budget has to reflect that.”

The Senate’s proposed budget allocated $7 million for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and $6 million to the Illinois Community College Board for implementing the program. Some advocates said they wanted to fund the program to $22.5 million, but LaPointe said she is satisfied with the $13 million total.

Villanueva, whose district covers largely Latino areas in the city and near west suburbs, said her constituents care about myriad issues that require considerable state funding, among them elementary and high school education, grants for college students, workforce development, supporting small businesses and violence prevention and after-school programming for young people.

“At the end of the day, people just want to feel supported by government and that’s what I try to do,” said Villanueva, who chairs the Senate Revenue Committee.



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