Lawmakers Adjourn as Budget Agreement Remains Elusive

(Éovart Caçeir at English Wikipedia)(Éovart Caçeir at English Wikipedia)

A new round of finger-pointing played out as Illinois lawmakers left the capitol for a mini Memorial Day weekend break, adjourning Friday even as a budget agreement remains elusive on the heels of gridlock that’s kept the state without a budget for a record-breaking 23 months. The same political realities that have stood in the way continue to mire a deal as a May 31 adjournment date rapidly approaches.

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The Senate – whose Democrats passed a $37.3 billion budget accompanied by an income tax increase and set of new sales taxes – returns to the statehouse Monday; members of the House will be back in Springfield on Sunday for hearings.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner put his propensity for putting the blame on the General Assembly’s majority Democrats on full display by holding a press conference in Oak Park “urging lawmakers to pass lasting property tax relief.”

The Senate had been working on a bipartisan deal since January, but negotiations fell apart after Democrats say Republicans, at Rauner’s direction, continually moved the goal line. Democrats instead went it alone this week – passing the budget, revenue package and other measures earlier in the week. Friday, they pressed on, passing a pair of workers’ compensation measures.

Rauner portrays it differently. He says Senate Democrats had, and continue to have, a “sincere interest” in good faith talks, but then the “(House) Speaker (Michael Madigan) sent special interest groups over to beat up the Senate Democrats, to pressure them. They caved in at the end – right when we were close to getting a balanced budget agreement with real reforms. It’s tragic for the people of Illinois. The speaker’s pressure made the Senate Democrats cave in.”

“I don’t know if the governor realizes it yet, but the Senate balanced and approved the budget he proposed. He has an odd way of saying ‘thank you,’” said John Patterson, spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.

“They ended up passing a tax hike with no lasting property tax relief. They ended up doing what the speaker wanted, which is just sticking it to taxpayers again,” Rauner said of the Senate plan.

“It’s just somebody looking to shift the credit for the disaster that’s been created away from himself,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said of the governor’s accusations.

Whether the House will advance any of the Senate’s multi-tiered package or debut its own budget remains unclear.

Democrats met privately at the capitol Friday to discuss their options; they didn’t come out with a clear path forward. However, sources say that a poll of the 67-strong caucus fell short – with only 42 backing the Senate budget and revenue package. 

However, “a characterization that we don’t have enough votes for a tax increase is an incorrect characterization” Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said.

“We talked about some things today – a lot of things lumped together – the ball was not unwound. And so people who may have expressed support or lack of it for a large package don’t necessarily fall in place behind one particular part of that package or against one particular part of that package.

“To say that there’s insufficient support for a tax increase: it may be the fact. But I could tell you that question was not asked,” Lang said. “If the question is, ‘Is there a path to get Democratic support for a budget plan?’ I think the answer to that is yes. Do I think there’s a path to get Democatic and Republican support for a budget plan by midnight on May 31? The answer is, I think it could happen if the Republican side of the aisle wants to let it happen.”

House hearings are scheduled for Sunday.

Outside groups are increasingly trying to pressure politicians to act. Notably, that has come to include the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the city’s premier organization for top executives. The Committee recently published a vision for the state that puts a premium on a budget and calls for $8 billion a year in revenue increases—some billions of dollars more than would be raised by the Senate tax plan that Republicans lampoon.

Madigan on Friday released a letter he’s sent to Committee Chairman Frederick Waddell, the CEO of Northern Trust, that outlines efforts Madigan says Democrats have taken to pass a budget and to meet Rauner’s demands.

Madigan ends the letter saying: “I hope you will join me in urging the governor to take up House Democrats’ offer and help us end this budget crisis.” 

“The Civic Committee has provided a comprehensive framework for our state’s governmental leaders to solve our budget crisis. It is now their responsibility to compromise and pass a comprehensive budget package which will move our state forward. The people of Illinois are depending on it,” Committee President Kelly Welsh said in a statement.

Rauner is a private equity investor elected, thanks in part, to the backing of business groups.

The governor this week began to say that the biggest hurdle for a budget is a property tax freeze—an initiative that polls well with voters frustrated paying high local bills. Rauner has moved off of calls for a “permanent” freeze and now wants one that would hold the line on property tax bills for four years; Senate Democrats are expected to try a second time to pass a freeze that would cover half that time.

The governor has also placed a high priority on cutting businesses’ costs when workers are injured.

Republicans, however, say that the pair of measures advanced Friday by the Senate don’t constitute “real” reform.

Lawmakers are under increasing pressure to pass a budget, with credit ratings agencies warning of downgrades, ever-mounting debt and calls from universities and social services of an insurmountable crisis, but early campaigning for the 2018 race for governor is further muddying the waters.

Voters can expect competing robocalls – the Rauner-funded Illinois Republican Party’s lashing at Democrats on taxes, while Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker’s accuses “crisis-creatin’ Rauner” of his “failure to lead our state.” 

Pritzker also sent someone dressed as a clock to Rauner’s suburban event Friday, to highlight that it’s Illinois’ 695th day without a budget.

Even as the governor criticized Democrats’ failure, his office was unable to identify education funding or property tax language he would back.

“As bipartisan discussion and negotiations on specific bills continue in Springfield, it would be premature to point to bill numbers at this time,” Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said.

Property taxes are schools’ primary source of money, so a property tax freeze is inextricably linked to education funding. 

There’s broad consensus that Illinois needs a new, more equitable way to fund schools but there’s still a lack of consensus at the capitol on the best method. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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