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4 days in Springfield: What passed, what stalled and next steps

Tuesday, May 26, 2020
The Daily Line
by Hannah Meisel

Ending the most unusual spring legislative session early Sunday morning, Illinois lawmakers — masked up to protect themselves from the coronavirus — approved a $41.5 billion state operating budget and pulled off passing lower rates for a Chicago casino in a last-minute feat late Saturday.

Unlike last year, however, Republicans refused to put any votes on the state’s spending plan, which relies on $5 billion in federal borrowing. The plan spares deep cuts to government programs, but Republicans worried the borrowing will send the state’s credit rating plunging.

Lawmakers mostly dodged protesters who showed up outside the Illinois House’s makeshift chamber at the Bank of Springfield Center. Nevertheless, the public anger at Gov. JB Pritzker for the state’s prolonged economic shutdown was palpable throughout the four days of session, which sent both sides to familiar talking points about making difficult choices to save lives and ending a shutdown that could potentially stall the economy.

Here’s what you need to know about what succeeded and failed in Springfield last week.

Budget’s borrowed billions

Illinois will borrow $5 billion in federal money to fill budget holes caused by lost revenue from the Covid-19 pandemic under the $41.5 billion budget negotiated by Democrats and decried by the GOP as disconnected from reality.

Schools will see the same level of funding they did last year but will not see the additional $350 million written into a 2017 law that overhauled how schools are funded in Illinois. Student aid for colleges and universities is also held flat.

The troubled Department of Children and Family Services will see a $126 million increase in funding over last year, which represents a 10 percent boost. Small areas of state government like the Illinois Arts Council, State Police Merit Board, and Prisoner Review Board will see decreases in the tens of thousands of dollars, while the community mental health services will see a $10 million decrease from $134 million in funding last year.

Related: ‘A sustained surge’: Child welfare advocates warn of looming post-pandemic crisis

The state will sell bonds to the Federal Reserve in a first-of-its-kind program set up by the Fed in response to the significant revenue shortfalls experienced by state and local governments nationwide due to the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago), a top Democratic budget negotiator, said Illinois’ budget framework is counting on $36.2 billion in projected revenues, and was not relying on the $1.2 billion Pritzker hopes to net for FY2021 through the graduated income tax if it gets voter approval.

Harris said Illinois could borrow up to $9 billion, but State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside), said the state would begin with $5 billion, spread out in separate tranches of bond sales.

While the budget modestly trims some line items, the state is authorized to spend $970 million more than it did last year, which State Sen. Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorne Woods) blasted as irresponsible given the economic downturn Illinois is experiencing along with the rest of the country.

“In that environment, you would think that we would be cutting spending on non-essentials as so many families have been forced to do across the state,” McConchie said. “But no, we don’t reduce the spending given the low drop in revenue that we are expecting.”

McConchie said the General Assembly would’ve been better off approving a short-term budget to keep the state operating until the full economic impact of the virus and accompanying shutdown is known.

State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) blasted the Democratic spending plan as “balanced on a wing and a prayer” that Congress will come through with more stimulus money for state and local governments.

State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray (D-Naperville), who campaigned on voting against House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) for House Speaker in 2018 and won a Republican district, was the only Democrat to vote against the budget. Stava-Murray and two vulnerable Metro East Democrats — State Rep. Monica Bristow (D-Alton) and State Rep. Nathan Reitz (D-Steeleville) voted against the budget implementation bill, which contained the provision for lawmakers’ cost-of-living increase.

The budget, crafted by Democrats, did not prevent lawmakers from receiving an automatic cost-of-living increase, which critics characterized as a salary increase. Democrats claim Comptroller Susana Mendoza will not pay out the increases and said the money is not actually appropriated in the budget.

State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), State Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island) and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) confer on Saturday. All three were involved in pushing the state’s gaming bill forward.

Chicago casino bill pulls through

In a last-minute feat of persuasion, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot notched her first big legislative win with a bill lowering the tax rates on a future Chicago casino — something she’d pushed for during lawmakers’ fall Veto Session but failed to get done.

State Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island), who negotiated both last year’s massive gaming expansion bill and this year’s gaming bill, credited Lightfoot’s tenacity and said Saturday’s victory was the result of a promise he made to Lightfoot a year ago when the mayor was brand new to office.

“I made her a promise that if the rates don’t work, we’d come back and fix them,” Rita said.

Language was inserted into last year’s gaming bill to mandate a feasibility study on the Chicago casino. The study, completed last summer by industry group Union Gaming, showed the Chicago casino’s effective tax rate would be 72 percent — a rate Lightfoot said would scare away any developer.

The push to alter the tax rates during fall Veto Session faltered after it was revealed State Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills) was wearing an FBI wire against former State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) on the day lawmakers returned to Springfield in October. Link had been handling gaming negotiations for his caucus for years and was promptly removed from talks.

A source close to the negotiations said getting the bill done looked extremely unlikely midway through session, but Saturday morning was the turning point for negotiations. Lightfoot herself made between 25 and 30 calls to individual lawmakers, according to the source.

During floor debate, State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) urged his colleagues to vote for the bill as a percentage of the revenues for the Chicago casino are earmarked to fund new construction projects statewide under last year’s $45 billion infrastructure program.

“Regardless of where you are in the state, this money is going to go towards projects in your area,” Hoffman said. “[This is] going to allow us to come out of this pandemic to create jobs, economic development, and put people back to work.”

In the Senate, the vote looked to be much closer than the House, which put up 77 votes for the bill, including many from Republicans. State Sen. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago), who had skipped session citing health concerns, was tapped to make the drive down to Springfield to ensure the bill would pass.

But it ended up passing easily with 42 votes. Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said nothing was sure “until the votes are on the board.”

“At three points along the drive I could’ve told him to turn around and go back but suddenly realized I probably would need him,” Harmon said.

Getting two gaming bills done within one year sets a new precedent for the General Assembly, Rita said, as previously they were regarded as “unicorns” that only passed every 10 to 15 years, with all stakeholders rushing to insert their own priorities, and inevitably collapsing under its own weight.

Rita said having a track record of passing last year’s massive gaming bill made it easier to get those whose priorities were left out of this year’s bill to trust that they will be another one next year.

Despite the fix, a future Chicago casino is far from breaking ground. Lightfoot had other officials are still in disagreement over where in the city to put the casino, and a developer would need to be approved by the Illinois Gaming Board — and get enough financing — in order to move forward with the project.

Vote by mail expansion sent to Pritzker

A bill that significantly expands Illinois’ vote by mail protocols for the November election — including making Election Day a state holiday for schools and universities — passed the Senate Friday and heads to Pritzker’s desk.

Related: Dems advance vote by mail expansion bill over GOP concerns of ‘vote harvesting’

SB 1863 passed without any Republican votes and over GOP objections to the vote-by-mail ballot boxes that Illinois’ 108 election authorities have the option of setting up. State Sen. Steve McClure (R-Springfield) suggested vote-by-mail is vulnerable to fraud by referencing a federal guilty plea entered Thursday by a Philadelphia election judge accused of stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of Democratic candidates in three separate primaries in addition to accepting bribes.

But the 37 present members of the Senate Democratic caucus voted for the bill, as they did with a second bill intended as cleanup legislation for the first vote-by-mail bill, which could not be further amended after it had passed the House on Thursday. That bill, SB 2238, ensured that Illinoisans who had already voted by mail could not vote in person, after Senate Republicans pointed out the flaw during committee debate Thursday.

Cocktails to go gets go-ahead

One area where lawmakers were able to work on a truly bipartisan basis was a bill that allows bars and restaurants to package up pre-mixed cocktails and sell them for curbside pickup.

Though many restaurants had already been doing this throughout the pandemic, it’s not technically legal. HB 2682 passed with only six votes against it in the House and unanimously in the Senate in the waning hours of session Saturday evening.

Zalewski jokingly referred to the bill as a “booze-nibus” bill, as it also contains fixes specific to Covid-19, like delaying late fees for liquor license renewal applications.

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-Chicago) said the bill was a “lifeline” for struggling bars and restaurants.

“We’re all thinking about what cocktail we’re going to get when this becomes law, but we all know at the end of the day this is about economic recovery for an industry that’s bleeding,” LaPointe said.

No remote voting for lawmakers

Lawmakers were unable to pass a bill that would have allowed the legislature to vote remotely after outcry from both Republicans and some Democrats. The bill, also tainted with a measure that would have allowed Pritzker’s administration to delay the fulfillment of Freedom of Information Act requests during the pandemic, failed on the House floor on Saturday.

Related: As some legislators contract Covid-19 and battle health concerns, a call for remote voting in Springfield builds

State Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who represents the capital city, defended the Illinois constitution’s contention that the General Assembly’s meetings be held in the “seat of state government” and doubted the efficacy of virtual meetings.

“I know for a fact that gaming bill that we passed earlier today would not have passed if we weren’t in this setting right now because all the conversations we had back and forth allowed that bill to happen,” Butler said.

Others backed him up, including State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) who said virtual meetings were not nearly as effective and denied the public the right to be part of the process.

“This is the people’s house, it’s not the people’s Zoom,” Flowers said.

But State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) said remote voting was about protecting the health and safety of lawmakers, staff and the public.

“It seems like some of this body forget that we are in the midst of a global pandemic,” Williams said.

However, early on Sunday morning the Senate passed a new rule allowing for some committee work to be done remotely.

Bill to target defiant businesses goes nowhere

Also left on the cutting room floor was a bill that would have allowed the Illinois State Police to cite businesses who defied his stay-at-home order with a Class A misdemeanor instead of the Illinois Department of Public Health pulling a business’ license.

Earlier in the week, Pritzker withdrew emergency rules that would have allowed for the same after public outcry over the rules. He instead asked the legislature to codify the rules, but Democrats were wary of forcing it through.

On Sunday, Pritzker said he was “very disappointed” lawmakers did not take up the bill and that the legislature “failed” on the matter.

“It was a complete abdication of responsibility,” Pritzker said.

Rent relief program falls through

State Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago) could not find a compromise for her bill that would cancel rent for six months for renters experiencing financial hardship due to Covid-19 and would enforce a six-month moratorium on eviction and foreclosure proceedings for homeowners in the same boat.

Related: Progressive lawmakers push for 6-month rent cancellation

The measure, funded by federal dollars contained in the $2 trillion CARES Act, would have established a fund for landlords to recoup lost rental income. If Congress passes a second massive stimulus bill, the fund could be further expanded.

Ramirez said Friday she expected the fund to help 45,000 families statewide, saying 27 percent of Illinois renters did not pay rent in April.

“This is a crisis,” Ramirez said. “There’s no economic recovery if we have everyone becoming homeless — or at least one third of the state.”

In the end, Ramirez was not able to get the realtors to a neutral position on the bill, so state spending to the Illinois Housing Development Authority was increased by $x in the state’s budget instead.

Hannah Meisel

Hannah Meisel is The Daily Line's Springfield reporter. She came to TDL after a short stint with Rich Miller's Capitol Fax blog. Previous stops before that include Law360, Illinois Public Media/WILL and NPR Illinois/WUIS. Meisel holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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