Bringing a pandemic-focused legislative session to a productive but acrimonious close early Sunday, Illinois lawmakers passed a new state budget, took steps to make a proposed Chicago casino more viable and even authorized take-out Mai Tais and margaritas.
But before weary lawmakers pushed through the last of their top agenda items, they endured four days of slow-motion legislating hamstrung by COVID-19 safety precautions that required mandatory facial coverings for lawmakers, temperature checks and social-distancing dictates.
In the end, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker got money for a series of COVID-19 initiatives, a gambling deal involving a Chicago casino and passage of his hoped-for $39.9 billion spending plan, though Republicans panned the budget for relying heavily on borrowing and as-yet unrealized federal aid.
Early Sunday, the governor praised the legislature’s budgetary handiwork.
“This budget begins to address the financial upheaval we are facing, but more hard choices about how to spend and save these dollars wisely remain to be made,” Pritzker said.
But the governor could not convince lawmakers facing re-election this fall to back his call to approve fines for businesses that violate his pandemic orders, which have shut down most of Illinois’ economy.
Still, the state’s public health crisis didn’t dominate every moment of the abbreviated legislative session.
The casino deal also represented a big win for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. It rejiggers the tax structure of the city’s first casino, in order to make it profitable for a would-be operator. Springfield’s first crack at a Chicago casino law last year came with such hefty taxes that the city found it wouldn’t be financially viable.
Lopsided House and Senate votes in favor of the casino plan lay the groundwork for Lightfoot being able to make headway in paying down the city’s vastly underfunded police and fire pensions and for Pritzker to shore up last year’s $45 billion state infrastructure plan, which was to be funded, in part, by city casino proceeds.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan argued the accomplishments of the legislative session addressed the unprecedented suffering Illinoisans are facing in a pandemic that has so far killed almost 4,800 people since mid-March and left more than 1 million people jobless.
“The people of Illinois are grappling with significant challenges to their daily lives and historic levels of unemployment, especially those least able to afford it,” Madigan said. “Nurses, doctors, first responders and frontline workers across Illinois continue to battle COVID-19 and face risks to keep us safe.”
“This special session, House Democrats stood with all of them, passing legislation ensuring essential services continue uninterrupted, and providing resources for the many people whose lives have been affected by this pandemic.”
Republicans, relegated to super-minority status in both the House and Senate, wanted the truncated legislative agenda to be a forum to explore whether the governor had overstepped his authority through his succession of stay-at-home orders and wanted input into his reopening plan. But the GOP made no serious headway on either front.
In a fiery floor speech, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, railed at Democrats for inserting what he characterized as a 2.6% pay raise for lawmakers and for being tone-deaf to the needs of the state’s beleaguered population and its dormant employers.
“We have abdicated our responsibilities, and it’s unfortunate,” Durkin said. “There was a comment made earlier about people suffering. Yes, they are suffering. But I’ve got some news for you, it will continue. Even after the vaccination has been delivered, they will continue to suffer because the legislature looks in the other direction on the most pressing, the most important issues that face us.”
Pandemic-battered budget leans heavily on borrowing
Pritzker’s shutdown of much of the state’s economy through his stay-at-home orders and business closures has blown an epic hole in the Illinois state budget.
The spending plan that the legislature’s Democratic-led majorities settled on relies on borrowing up to $5 billion from the Federal Reserve next year. The governor has also called on Congress to enact another economic relief package to buttress state budgets, though it remains unclear when – or even if – that federal money will arrive.
“There’s a storm – a giant storm – blowing across our land and blowing across the state of Illinois,” House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said as he argued against making drastic cuts in government funding to schools, first responders and other government programs.
“We as a legislature and as a state, do we stand up as a bulwark?” Harris said, speaking at a Springfield convention center where the House convened in order to give representatives more space for social distancing. “Do we stand up as a shield to try to shelter people in our communities from the storm? Or do we say, ‘No, we need to retreat, we need to fold in and we need to do less?’”
The budget plan includes $3.8 billion from the federal CARES Act to deal with the coronavirus crisis in the next year, including funding for testing, contact tracing and additional health measures at the state’s prisons, some of which have been subject to coronavirus-related outbreaks.
All told, the Illinois Department of Public Health’s budget would be increased by 144% compared to last year. School funding to the state Board of Education is slightly increased from last year, accounting for $13.2 billion of the state budget. And lawmakers will make the full required payments to the state’s pension funds – more than $10 billion that’s owed to the vastly underfunded systems that give retirement benefits to teachers, university and state employees.
The budget, which still needs Pritzker’s approval, also authorizes $6.4 million to settle the 12 lawsuits from the families of those who died of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at the Quincy veterans’ home. Those outbreaks have been the subject of a years-long WBEZ investigation.
Republicans took umbrage with the lack of cuts and the widespread spending authority lawmakers were handing over to Pritzker as part of the state’s COVID-19 response.“This budget does not take a step forward in accountability,” said Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon. “It further gives a longer leash to an executive branch that has not earned it.”Democrats pushed the budget through on a vote of 68 to 44, without any GOP support.
Chicago casino tax overhaul breezes through legislature
After decades of debating whether to approve construction of the city’s first and only casino, legislators approved the plan last year as part of a massive expansion of gambling across the state, which included the legalization of sports betting.
But a study later found the tax structure would make running a casino so “onerous,” it likely wouldn't be able to attract investors to get it off the ground.
State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, praised the "tenacity" of Chicago’s mayor to push this legislation that would lower the tax burden on the operator. Revenue from the casino would help the state pay for parts of the massive construction program legislators approved last year. The city’s cut of the action would fund its underfunded police and fire pension funds.
"The idea is to make this work for Chicago so we can fund a vertical capital, put people to work not only for Chicago but for everywhere in the entire state of Illinois,” Rita said. “This is good for everyone for jobs and development, having a Chicago casino be real."
The vote came as casinos across the state have gone dark due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s unclear when they will reopen. Rita acknowledged he’s not certain how casinos will operate in the future, suggesting that fewer people would be allowed at a blackjack table so as to comply with social distancing requirements.
It passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 77 to 32. The Senate approved it 42 to 14. Pritzker said in a statement late Saturday that he intends to sign it.
“This moment is decades in the making, and represents a critical step toward shoring up our city’s pension obligations, as well as driving huge levels of infrastructure funding and fueling thousands of new jobs for all of Illinois,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
Cocktails to go during COVID-19?
Illinois’ shell-shocked $30 billion-a-year bar and restaurant industry notched a big legislative win after the House and Senate voted to authorize home delivery and takeout of craft cocktails.
Under the plan, bars and restaurants can provide mixed drinks in tamper-proof, sealed containers for pick-up or delivery, so long as they are transported in the trunk or backseat by drivers. Age verification is also a requirement.
The measure, which Lightfoot supports, now is positioned to move to the governor, who last week voted to speed up bar and restaurants’ reopening by agreeing to permit outdoor dining at the end of this month.
“The city is reviewing the new legislation and exploring local municipal code amendments regarding the safe and responsible sales of pre-packaged alcoholic mixed drinks for delivery and takeout in Chicago,” Lightfoot spokeswoman Anel Ruiz said Saturday night. “We look forward to working with aldermen, industry leaders and other stakeholders to explore this option and determine appropriate next steps for Chicago.”
Since Pritzker shut down the state’s hospitality industry on March 16 as a way to slow transmission of COVID-19, more than 321,000 of its nearly 595,000 employees have been laid off, and dozens of restaurants have signaled their closures may be permanent without immediate help.
“They are hemorrhaging,” said state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, whose district includes Wrigleyville, Boystown and a stretch of Lincoln Avenue where some of the city’s best-known bars and restaurants are located.
“If we want to continue to have independent businesses, bars and restaurants in my district, giving them as many tools and levers to stay afloat is what we should be doing, and this is one of them,” said Feigenholtz, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor.
The plan passed the Senate Saturday night, 56 to 0, followed by a 104 to 6 vote in the House, where state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, was chief sponsor.
Despite pandemic, no Zoom for General Assembly
Meanwhile, state lawmakers rejected an effort that would have allowed them to meet remotely amid heightened concerns of transmitting COVID-19. The measure included more than a dozen different components, including one that would have extended the deadline government bodies have to respond to public records requests during the pandemic.
“All of us, when you go to Jewel or Whole Foods or Binny’s or everywhere you’ve gone over the past two months – those staff, which are now frontline staff – are serving us every day. We need to return the favor to serve them at our place of employment here,” Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, argued.
But other lawmakers bristled at the lack of preparation the legislature was making for this pandemic — or the next one — by not allowing remote voting.
“It seems that some in this body forget that we are in the midst of a global pandemic,” Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said. “This has been an incredibly rude awakening for all of us and it’s a real shame that we refuse to prepare for the next unexpected event.”
Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Alex Keefe is an editor of the station’s government and politics desk. Follow them on Twitter @tonyjarnold, @davemckinney and @akeefe.