No decisions have been made yet, but there aren’t any good ones when it comes to the state budget.
Which is why earlier this month, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon sent a letter requesting at least $41 billion in assistance from the federal government, to help make up for the mounting losses the state and its municipalities are expecting to take due to the pandemic.
The request has roiled Washington, including President Donald Trump, who tweeted Monday: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help?”
It’s the latest salvo in a public feud between Trump and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who, when asked about it, gibed Trump back.
“Unlike Donald Trump, we proposed and passed and have effectuated a balanced budget for the year that we’re in,” Pritzker said. “To the extent that we’re talking about – and we are – about the federal government providing funding for states, all states need it now because coronavirus, COVID-19, has blown a hole in every state budget, all across the nation.”
There’s a reason Illinois is at the center of the debate – beyond Trump’s tendency to blame Chicago for societal ills.
In mid-April, as congressional talks were underway on a next version of a COVID-19 assistance package, Harmon sent that letter asking for $41 billion, citing the havoc the coronavirus pandemic has caused for the state’s finances.
“I realize I’ve asked for a lot, but this is an unprecedented situation,” Harmon wrote.
The request noted that progress Illinois had been making on its finances was sure to be wiped out as the state’s main funding sources – individual income taxes, corporate income taxes and sales taxes – are taking precipitous drops because of the stay-at-home order that’s shut down businesses and left at least 750,000 Illinoisans filing for unemployment.
The letter includes a request for $6 billion to help prop up the unemployment trust fund so that Illinois will be able to pay out those claims, funding for hospitals and other health care facilities and $9.6 billion for municipalities.
But it’s his request for $10 billion in pension relief that has drawn criticism, including from Trump’s former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.
“Illinois law has put the state on a path to fund the pension liability in a manner that is actuarially sound, and the state has been following the pension plan set out in that law. In a normal year the size of those payments crowds out funding for services and programs. Clearly this will not be a normal year and that crowding out effect will be exacerbated by significant revenue losses,” Harmon wrote.
Harmon’s spokesman says the Senate president stands by the request, and said that $10 billion hardly qualifies as a bailout considering the long-term pension debt is roughly $138 billion.
“A 5th aid package should not bail out states that have recklessly spent and taxed their way into oblivion,” Haley wrote Saturday on Twitter. “Illinois lawmakers are seeking tens of billions in taxpayer funds to deal with the state’s looming pension debt – that has nothing at all to do with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Prior to joining the Trump administration, Haley served as governor of South Carolina – a state that consistently receives more in funding from the federal government than its residents contribute.
“Actually, the states who are being bailed out every year, year in and year out, are the states who take more out of the federal dole than they put in in taxes,” Pritzker said.
Illinois is a donor state that sends more to the federal government than it gets in return.
Still, Republicans say Illinois needs to do more to control its spending and before reaching out to the feds.
“For Pres. Harmon and Senate Democrats to send a letter asking for over $40 billion from federal taxpayers, to use this critical health crisis as a way to ask for a bailout for years of reckless spending, I think is irresponsible,” said Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady called on the governor and Democratic legislative leaders to bring lawmakers back to Springfield to begin tackling such issues.
“Today I called the Governor, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate and told them Illinois Senate Republicans stand ready to return to Springfield to take up the timely and important issues facing Illinois and its residents such as the fair maps amendment and COVID-19 related issues,” Brady said in a statement. “The work we do for our residents is essential and it can be done in a safe manner by following the proper social distancing guidelines. Other units of government are meeting and doing the people’s business. It is time for the Illinois legislature to do so.”
Only the House speaker and Senate president can convene their chambers, unless the governor calls a special session.
”I respectfully urge our state leaders to stop using this pandemic as an excuse to stall the legislative process,” Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said in a statement. “Governance is not something that should be subject to convenience. We can and should return to Springfield as soon as possible to represent our constituents and ensure they have a voice in the decision-making process.”
During his briefing Monday, Pritzker said there’s no deadline for lawmakers to return, though he pointed out that a supermajority of votes, rather than a simple majority, would be needed to pass a new budget if the General Assembly waits until June to pass a new spending plan.
“If you’ve been to the Capitol, you know legislative sessions are not conducive to social distancing. Congregating 177 lawmakers, hundreds of staff, security, media and others in one building — and then sending them all right back to their families and communities — comes with potentially dire consequences that right now can and should be avoided,” Harmon spokesman John Patterson said.
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