Illinois banks on federal borrowing, Chicago casino, adds COVID-19 relief

Regional News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — State lawmakers worked late into the night on Saturday to hammer out the final details on a $39.8 billion budget, which freezes most spending at last year’s levels, makes the state’s full pension payment, but pauses the annual increases that were scheduled for underfunded school districts.

After the Coronavirus sidelined the statehouse from gathering in person for 11 weeks, the special legislative session crammed four months of work into four days. Lawmakers spread out, wore face masks, submitted to temperature screenings at the door, and worked long hours with limited staff to craft thousands of pages of new laws and pass them to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

“My administration will implement the spending framework offered to us by the General Assembly and find the necessary savings to meet the moment in front of us,” Pritzker said in a statement, adding, “Our work is not yet finished.”

Coronavirus closures dried up sales and corporate income taxes while massive layoffs slashed income taxes. The pandemic scattered the legislature’s priorities and forced their hand into spending a billion dollars less than Governor Pritzker initially proposed in his annual budget proposal.

Some COVID-19 related measures included $800 million in stability payments for hospitals, health care providers and nursing homes, added protections for essential workers, $396 million in grant funding to assist workers who lost income due to COVID-19 make their rent payments, $600 million in state funding for businesses impacted by COVID-19 closures, and a $400 million for local public health departments.

“No local community has been immune to the devastation of this moment,” Pritzker said at a Sunday morning press conference. “All of that support will be critical for Illinois as we begin to rebuild our workforce and recover.”

The new state budget also expands funding for two of the state’s most beleaguered agencies. The Department of Children and Family Services is in line for a $178.5 million boost, and an extra $59.2 million as a lifeline to assist the Illinois Department of Employment Security while it manages a record number of unemployment claims.

The legislature gifted Chicago’s mayor Lori Lightfoot with a casino. The agreement would split the casino taxes between the city and the state, with the city portion going to fund pensions for police officers and firefighters, and the state share reinforcing the ‘Rebuild Illinois’ capital infrastructure plan. A revised $45.1 billion capital infrastructure plan includes specific line-item expenditures for capital projects in state lawmakers districts.

The biggest question marks in the budget rely on $5 billion in borrowing from the U.S. Federal Reserve or other unspecified relief Congress may provide to help back fill budget holes for state and local governments.

“I will continue to advocate for a national program to support state and local governments to make up the difference in the revenues that fund the supports our families need during this difficult time, fund our children’s schools and public hospitals, and pay for the salaries of our teachers and first responders,” Pritzker said.

While the state seeks federal relief, some of its changes may draw the ire of President Donald Trump, whose administration has threatened to block federal funding to so-called ‘sanctuary states’ who provide safe haven for undocumented immigrants, or to states who expand mail-in balloting.

Illinois moved along party lines to vastly expand the vote by mail program after fears of the Coronavirus caused several states to delay their primary elections this spring. Democrats who hold super-majorities in both chambers approved a plan to mail ballot applications to every Illinois voter who participated in an election since the 2018 November midterm election. Republicans cried foul, echoing sentiments from the President who argues the vote by mail expansion is ripe for voter fraud.

The state legislature also approved a plan to provide Medicaid insurance to undocumented immigrants who are over the age of 65 and whose income is at or below federal poverty levels.

Boilerplate budget language that appears to lock in an annual, automatic pay raise for lawmakers was not removed from the legislation, inviting criticism from Republicans who called a legislative pay raise tone deaf and insulting to taxpayers at a time when a record number of Illinoisans are out of work. Democrats conceded the budget may technically allow for those raises, but said they did not provide the funding for the Comptroller to pay for them, effectively locking legislators pay in place.

“There is no pay raise in the budget that was just adopted by the House and Senate,” Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) said early Sunday morning. “There is no money in the state budget to fund pay raises for lawmakers.”

The legislature left town without expanding or refining Governor Pritzker’s powers to enforce his executive orders, leaving him to wrestle with the courts as his Coronavirus restrictions face a flurry of legal challenges. Republicans pushed to limit the Governor’s emergency powers to 30 day increments, requiring legislative approval to continue beyond that allotment. The Governor lobbied lawmakers to give his administration power to fine companies who don’t comply with his orders, but the legislature had little appetite for taking on such a controversial topic.

The most popular proposal that gained wide bipartisan support was a measure to allow for bars and restaurants to sell curbside cocktails in tamper-proof containers.

“We’ve seen some changes in the way our hospitality sector delivers things,” Representative Tim Butler (R-Springfield) said. “We do that for growlers and wine. There’s no reason we can’t do that for cocktails as well.”

Measures to allow lawmakers to vote remotely without showing up in Springfield failed. The House and Senate are not scheduled to return again until the fall veto session.

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