Illinois lawmakers are on the precipice of breaking from the paralyzing dysfunction of recent years, and are on the precipice of passing a bipartisan budget.
The Senate took the first step, easily approving the $38.5 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2018 (House Bill 109, House Bill 3342) by a 56-2 vote on Wednesday night; a vote is planned in the House for Thursday – the final day of the legislature’s session, and the last opportunity for the General Assembly to pass a budget before the voting threshold increases from a simple majority to a three-fifths majority.
Debate in the Senate was speedy, and contained none of the potshots or swipes typical of those during the yearslong impasse that put Illinois on the brink of a credit downgrade to junk status.
Backers laud the budget as “balanced” and note that it contains no new taxes – though it does depend on the billions of extra revenue coming in thanks to a hike in the income tax, to 4.95 percent, last July.
The collaborative spirit and ease of passage led one Republican senator to describe a budget hearing as a “love fest.”
Chicago fares well under the plan. The city won $180 million in state dollars to use for “infrastructure improvements” – namely, roadwork required for former President Barack Obama’s presidential center in Jackson Park. Chicago Public Schools will also see a boost as part of an overall $350 million uptick in dollars for K-12 education divvied up through last year’s new school funding formula. CPS’s share of that funding is expected to support Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new call for full-day preschool for all Chicago 4-year-olds.
Also included in the spending plan: A half-billion dollars toward the Discovery Partners Institute, a research park in development for the South Loop, in affiliation with the University of Illinois and other universities, that has the backing of Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Local government funding was an overall point of contention leading up to a budget deal, after municipalities took a hit in the previous year. While local governments are still not faring as well as they were before the Rauner administration, they will keep a greater share of the state income tax (5 percent versus 10 percent) and pay a lower fee to the state for Illinois collecting and processing local sales taxes (that administrative holdback has been lowered from 2 percent to a 1.5-percent fee).
Universities see a 2-percent increase to their state funding, as well as support for a new “AIM High” program based on merit and income that is intended to prevent a further brain drain by luring Illinois high school students choosing to attend out-of-state universities to stay in-state.
Rauner would get an initial $53 million infusion of cash needed to begin building a new veterans’ home in Quincy, following outbreaks of the pneumonia-like Legionnaire’s disease attributed to old pipes and a contamination-prone river water source.
The budget is also predicated on the sale of the James R. Thompson Center, state government’s downtown Chicago headquarters.
And it relies on state pensioners’ voluntary participation on two new programs that will effectively allow select classes of current or future annuitants to “buy out” their pensions from the state – Illinois will pay participants cash up front, with the expectation of long-term savings of roughly more than $400 million.
The Department of Corrections’ budget decreases slightly, with the idea that savings can be achieved by the state paying new bills on time, thereby avoiding interest penalties.
Though sources say Rauner will sign the measure into law should it get to his desk, some Republicans are already denouncing him as a "phony," given that the budget relies on billions in revenue from an income tax release which Rauner tells voters on the campaign trail he wants rolled back.
A series of bills will next head Rauner’s desk following Wednesday action, including:
• House Bill 2354, which creates a “lethal order of protection” path for police or a family member to petition the courts to temporarily take away a gun from someone deemed a danger to himself or others.
• Senate Bill 337, a revised version of a bill requiring gun shops be licensed by the state, after Rauner vetoed previous legislation that he deemed too burdensome on small businesses.
• Senate Bill 2332, which raises the legal sales age for cigarettes and other tobacco products, from 18 to 21.
Still unclear is whether lawmakers will advance legislation dealing with sexual harassment as capitol insiders are speculating about the identity of the legislator an unnamed activist is expected to publicly accuse of some form of abuse at a Thursday press conference.
A controversial bill aimed at cracking down on a rise in carjackings in Chicago may also stall before the legislature’s Thursday adjournment. However, the Senate is poised to take up Senate Bill 2562, another city-backed measure that would give police greater authority to use drones to surveil crowds.
Legislation to require a 72-hour waiting period between the sale and delivery of all guns is also on the Senate calendar for the General Assembly’s last day of the spring session.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky