As Illinois further emerges from the pandemic and tiptoes into what state forecasters anticipate will be at least a mild recession, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday presented a new $49.6 billion general funds state budget.
Gone are the election-year, one-time tax breaks that saw a brief gas tax freeze, a back-to-school sales tax holiday and income and property tax rebates.
This time around, Pritzker is pitching additional investments on abortion (by creating a hotline to help patients find services), homelessness prevention and crisis response. He is also advocating preparing for the next potential pandemic with money for upgrading a disease surveillance database.
“We must act on the lessons from COVID and build a more robust state and local public health infrastructure so we are prepared for whatever comes our way,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker’s fellow Democrats largely heralded the proposal and its priorities, while Republicans were immediately dismissive, saying that it overspends and sets up Illinois for a tax increase in the future.
“I am concerned that there are some things in there that we would be committing long-term spending to that we may not have the revenue in the future to fund,” said state Rep. Norine Hammond (R-Macomb), who will serve as the House Republicans’ new chief budgeteer.
The bulk of additional spending under Pritzker’s proposal would go toward education, primarily a new signature program he has dubbed Smart Start — a multi-year, multi-pronged program geared toward supporting early childhood through expanding preschool, early intervention services and home visits and paying more to day care workers contracted by the state.
“If we don’t start with our kids young, we’re setting them up for failure,” state Sen. Kim Lightford (D-Maywood), said.
Republicans signaled they could find common ground on early childhood investments.
Pritzker’s pitch is just that — a pitch. Next come months of hearings and negotiations with and between lawmakers, who are scheduled to pass a budget and have the spring legislative session completed by May 19.
The spending plan also dedicates a 7% operating increase for community colleges and universities and increases funding for the Monetary Award Program (MAP) that provides tuition grants for low-income higher education students.
“With a $100 million increase to MAP, we can make history,” Pritzker said. “Together with Pell grants, virtually everyone at or below median income in Illinois can go to community college tuition-free.”
About 20% of general funds spending will go to K-12 schools, including putting $350 million more into the Evidence-Based Funding (EBF) formula that directs additional money toward the neediest schools.
The Chicago Teachers Union commended the governor’s focus on education but said Illinois should nearly double that increase and put, at minimum, $750 million more into EBF.
“We … hope the governor is willing to work with us to increase funding to the school funding formula because our children and their educators can’t do more with less,” CTU president Stacy Davis Gates said in a statement. “While we applaud the Governor’s educator pipeline program, our schools are in demand of more social workers, guidance counselors and clinicians to deal with the unprecedented mental health crisis taking place in our schools.”
Immigrant rights advocates also signaled frustration, wanting more funding for cash assistance for immigrant families, support for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Latin America and citizenship application fee waivers. A consortium of organizations sent word of disappointment that the budget did not include a child tax credit.
“With costs of living rising and Congress failing to pass an expanded Child Tax Credit, we must enact policy solutions that put cash in the hands of those who need it most,” Economic Security for Illinois’ Erion Malasi said in a statement. “A Child Tax Credit would do just that, moving us toward an inclusive, equitable, and family-friendly tax system, and furthering the Governor’s stated goal to “make our state the best place in the nation to raise young children.”
The governor’s new spending plan also dedicates a 7% operating increase for community colleges and universities; a $50 million bump to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that will allow families with children and pregnant people at or under 40% of the federal poverty rate to access help buying food and other necessities (up from 30% now); and $45 million for an IT revamp for Illinois’ participation in the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System.
In total, the budget would spend all but $300 million of an estimated $49.9 billion in revenue, with the governor proposing $138 million go toward the state’s rainy-day reserve.
Democrats, who hold supermajorities in the House and the Senate, greeted the governor’s message with applause. Republicans were sparing, clapping rarely, such as when the Democratic governor mentioned support for purchasing “healthy, nutritious food from Illinois farmers,” when he called health care workers “heroes,” and when the entire chamber rose with standing ovations for special guests looking on from the gallery.
The greatest applause — and starkest contrast on the House floor, as Democrats hooted in appreciation while GOP members sat stoically — came at the tail of Pritzker’s address, when he said he was “obliged” to speak out about a “virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation, led by demagogues who are pushing censorship, with a particular attack right now on school board members and library trustees.”
“It’s an ideological battle by the right wing, hiding behind a claim that they would protect our children — but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like,” Pritzker said. “This has been done in the past, and it doesn’t stop with just snuffing out ideas. This afternoon I’ve laid out a budget agenda that does everything possible to invest in the education of our children. Yet it’s all meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron and tells kids they can’t talk about being gay and signals to Black and Brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told.”
Pritzker acknowledged that due to the COVID-19 pandemic it has been years since he last gave the ceremonial presentation from the Illinois House before a joint session of the General Assembly.
“The last time I stood at this podium was back in early 2020,” Pritzker said. “Three of the four current legislative leaders had not yet taken up their current posts. The last time I stood here seems like a lifetime ago. So many fiscal challenges laid ahead. And so much progress has been made.”
Now, he said, “the state of our state is stronger than it has been in decades, and we’re getting stronger every day.”
Pritzker spent at least a fifth of his speech recounting Illinois’ past budget turmoil; he said matters have improved under his watch.
“Without fiscal responsibility, we end up with trauma and chaos for the people we serve,” Pritzker said. “Our responsible approach to budgeting has moved us away from the days of lurching from crisis to crisis and instead is producing better outcomes and a brighter future for Illinois.”
Illinois is not fully out of the financial woods: The state still has the nation’s worst credit rating, and at $140 billion, has the highest unfunded pension liability among U.S. states.
The FY24 budget calls for making a full payment of $9.8 billion to the pension systems, per a 1995 law that aims to bring the systems to 90% funding by 2045. Currently, Illinois’s pension systems are funded at 43.8%.
Instead of giving separate state of the state and budget speeches, Pritzker on Wednesday gave a combined address.
His proposal calls for $118.9 billion spending overall in fiscal year 2024, which begins in July.
The budget also invests $10 million in high school vocational training for the high-demand electric vehicle workforce; creates a new portal promoted as a one-stop shop for behavioral health care resources; and creates a new Illinois Grocery Initiative that will assist “municipalities and independent grocers to open or expand grocery stores in underserved rural towns and urban neighborhoods.”
One leading legislator, state Senate Pres. Don Harmon, was absent given that he is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday; per his spokesman, Harmon had experienced no serious symptoms.
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