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Illinois legislature

In this June 30, 2016 file photo, Illinois lawmakers appear at the State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

Seth Perlman

Illinois lawmakers pass election-year $46 billion budget and anti-crime bills

Illinois Democrats padded their election-year resumes Saturday by giving final approval to a state budget that includes more than $1.8 billion in tax relief and to a series of anti-crime steps designed to blunt Republican attacks for being soft on crime.

Wrapping up their spring session, lawmakers staged an all-nighter – a rarely seen 20-hour behemoth of a day in Springfield filled with bluster, brief naps at their desks, and long speeches that resulted in a finalized, $46 billion-plus spending plan as sunrise approached Saturday.

Unlike Congress, the state legislature doesn’t have the filibuster. But that effectively is what Republicans resorted to before an audience of sleeping Illinoisans in trying to slow down a budget plan that drew praise from Wall Street and, in the end, Republican votes for parts of the package.

But in the end, Democrats – with their House and Senate supermajorities – muscled through a plan put together by Gov. JB Pritzker, Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside. The timestamp on the final budget vote was 5:52 a.m Saturday.

“Boy, you guys hate that we’re balancing the budget and paying our debts, don’t you?” House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said, needling the cast of House Republicans who sacrificed their REM sleep to blast the plan in speech after speech after speech.

A few short hours later, after exhausted legislators clocked out for the spring, Pritzker gathered reporters in his statehouse office to tout what he characterized as a series of memorable and impactful legislative wins.

“It is a terrific day,” the governor said. “We end this legislative session with enormous and historic victories for the people of Illinois.

“Just a few years ago, some people said what we’ve achieved was impossible. But it’s true. Our bill backlog is paid off. Our pension liabilities are reduced. Our rainy day fund is recovering, and we are delivering $1.8 billion of direct tax relief to the people we serve,” he said.

Indeed, the capstones of the Democratic plan aim to steer a share of the state’s surging tax revenues to inflation-weary Illinoisans.

The deal includes a year-long suspension of the state’s 1% tax on groceries, a six-month pause to a planned 2.2-cent per gallon increase in the state’s motor-fuel tax in July, property tax rebate checks of up to $300 for homeowners and checks of $50 per person and $100 per child for individuals making $200,000 or less.

The plan also puts $1 billion into a state rainy-day fund – a threshold never before met in Illinois – and invests an additional $500 million more than required into state pension funds that were $130 billion underwater as of last November. The state’s Earned Income Tax Credit also is being expanded.

Another $200 million would be steered toward public-safety measures as crime flares and stands as a possibly potent issue with voters in an off-year election cycle that appears to favor Republicans around the country.

“Tonight, this morning, we passed a fiscally and socially responsible budget that responds to the needs of families across the state,” Welch said after 6 a.m. Saturday. “With inflation surging to its highest in nearly four decades, it was our responsibility as lawmakers to put money back into the pockets of hard-working Illinoisans.”

The giving mood of Democrats brought heckles from Republicans, who characterized the tax relief as a crass election-year giveaway.

“What we have here, folks, is JB Pritzker just put a billion-eight into his own campaign to pay for these temporary and farcical tax cuts that are going to disappear as soon as the election is over,” said Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, who didn’t cast a vote for the tax cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, piled on, as well.

“Let’s call this budget what it really is—an attempt to buy your vote,” said McConchie, who nonetheless voted for the tax relief. “For months, Republicans have proposed permanent tax relief. Instead, Democrats chose a permanent expansion to [spend], handing out one-time checks right before the election and then abandoning taxpayers right after the election. While some tax relief is better than none at all, Illinoisans deserve real relief instead of bigger government.”

But the budget’s legislative supporters scoffed at the huffing of Republicans, who mostly voted for the tax relief despite criticizing it.

“A person is going to get a check from the state of Illinois for the first time in a generation because we finally - finally - have gotten this state on the right track,” Zalewski said.

“It’s going to lift up the people we care about,” he continued. “You should want to support this bill regardless of the politics because it’s a good thing.”

The suddenly rosy fiscal turnaround comes after Illinois’ bond rating had been hovering one notch above junk status under Pritzker’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who presided over a crippling two-year budget impasse that led to a succession of bond-rating downgrades for Illinois.

It also is a stark difference from the fiscal world Pritzker envisioned for Illinois just 18 months ago, when he pushed unsuccessfully for passage of a graduated income tax constitutional amendment that he said was vital if Illinois was ever to regain financial stability.

But the deal now awaiting Pritzker’s signature, in fact, represented the kind of financial stability sought by Wall Street, with one bond-rating firm Friday predicting Illinois could see its bond rating boosted as a result of the plan.

“The budget agreement in Illinois suggests the state is on track to implement credit-positive measures that rebuild fiscal resilience and reduce long-term liabilities including a meaningful deposit to the rainy day fund, addressing long-standing unpaid healthcare bills and chipping away at the pension liability,” said Eric Kim, senior director at Fitch Ratings.

“Continued operating performance improvement and movement towards structural balance, and maintaining a more normal fiscal decision-making process, could support a return to the state’s pre-pandemic rating or higher,” Kim said.

But like their GOP legislative counterparts, Republicans seeking to unseat Pritzker took an Edward Scissorhands approach to the fiscal framework built by the governor and Democratic supermajorities for the 2023 budget year that begins in July.

Early Friday, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Richard Irvin accused the governor of “relying on election year gimmicks and doubling down on more spending to push higher taxes after November.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, another Republican gubernatorial contender, derided the budget plan on Twitter as a document “made up of backroom deals & pork spending.”

And Republican Gary Rabine described the plan as a “bloated pork-filled budget [that] will continue to drive Illinois into the financial abyss.

Voting on the flush state budget and its tax-relief components shared centerstage late Friday and early Saturday alongside Democratic votes on a series of anti-crime measures.

Republicans also have made crime an issue against Pritzker and the Democrats, blaming Springfield’s ruling party for generational-high levels of homicide, carjackings and smash-and-grab shoplifting in high-end shopping districts, particularly in Chicago and the suburbs.

The GOP has pushed for the repeal of the SAFE-T Act, a sprawling criminal justice package Pritzker enacted last year. Provisions that Republicans – and some Democratic law enforcement officials – have objected to include elimination of cash bail next year, new tighter restrictions on who can be charged with murder, more lenient electronic monitoring and anonymous complaints against police officers.

But Democrats ignored the GOP sniping at that law, opting instead to cobble together a slew of measures aimed at giving police more tools to target carjackings, expressway shootings and smash-and-grab shoplifting attacks in commercial districts.

Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton, D-Western Springs, said her legislation establishing organized retail crime as a felony isn’t aimed at small-time shoplifters but instead those who steal merchandise en masse, sell it and then use the proceeds on guns, drugs and human trafficking.

“What we’re trying to do with this bill is to get to the big fish. We don’t want to get the little fish,” she said of the legislation, which was crafted in concert with Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Republicans criticized the measure, tying it back to the cashless bail system soon to take effect and noting how offenders could be charged with this crime yet released from custody to commit smash-and-grab thefts again.

“We’re not doing anything to discourage or deter the people who are destroying the River North, businesses on the South Side, the West Side, everywhere else in Chicago that have had to deal with this in the past year and a half,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. “This is disappointing that this is the best we can do.”

Both legislative chambers voted in favor of permitting police to access cameras on expressways and Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable Lake Shore Drive to investigate carjackings, shootings and other violent crimes. Another measure would increase cameras on expressways in Cook and the collar counties.

Lawmakers also voted to create the new crime of organized retail theft to combat smash-and-grab shoplifting attacks on high-end commercial districts, set up a witness protection fund and set up pilot programs in several communities around the state, including Waukegan, that would pair social workers with police.

But one anti-crime measure inspired by the murders of two downstate Department of Children and Family Service caseworkers – Pamela Knight and Deidre Silas – and actively pushed by the governor didn’t emerge from the legislature.

Bi-partisan legislation to enhance penalties for anyone who attacks state child-welfare workers stalled in the House after having passed the Senate, prompting one House Republican shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday to deliver a public scolding to the chamber and to Pritzker himself.

“What a disservice that the governor and this House has done to Pam Knight and her family and now, most recently, to Deidre Silas,” said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna. “Whoever is in charge of calling this, and I’m going to have to say the governor, should be ashamed of themselves.

In another development during the legislature’s final session day of the spring, Democrats also voted to curtail fundraising in judicial races — a vote that took a not-so-subtle swipe at GOP mega-donor Kenneth Griffin by moving to complicate any attempt he may harbor to funnel millions of dollars into judicial campaigns.

The measure’s sponsor, state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, described his legislation as a campaign-finance step designed to keep dark money out of Supreme Court races and other judicial elections.

Contributions from a single source to independent expenditure committees — political funds unaffiliated with individual candidates that can spend on their behalf — would be capped at $500,000 per election cycle.

Republicans were quick to point out that independent expenditure committees were crucial in the 2020 defeat of Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. One of those funds, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, spent millions of dollars against Kilbride’s retention on the high court.

State campaign records show $4.5 million of the group’s receipts came from one source over two days in October 2020: Chicago hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who also is bankrolling Irvin’s Republican gubernatorial campaign to unseat Pritzker this fall.

State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, who voted against the measure, said the legislation wasn’t truly about protecting the integrity of the judiciary but rather about preventing a replay of Kilbride’s defeat, particularly when control of the Supreme Court is up for grabs this fall.

“This is once again in Illinois the political machine that’s in power is trying to protect its own,” she said.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney. WBEZ Springfield reporters Alex Degman, Mawa Iqbal and Caroline Kubzansky contributed to this report.

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