Illinois has limped along without a budget since July and solving that gridlock will be lawmakers’ top priority in the impending session, a time when they’ve traditionally turned attention to passing a fresh budget for the coming fiscal year.
The epic budget fight that’s crippling many state services will overshadow other key issues lawmakers want to address in the 2016 session, which begins Wednesday, including legislation to allow recall efforts against Chicago mayors and regulating fantasy sports gambling.
Upcoming elections could weigh heavily and delay the budget deliberations. There are few session days scheduled before primaries March 15, and even if there’s a deal before then, some lawmakers may be reluctant to take on tough votes if they’re in tight contests.
In fact, lawmakers will be off to a slow start. While the Senate is meeting Wednesday, House lawmakers won’t convene until Jan. 27, the day of the State of the State address, because the “workload was not there,” said Steve Brown, the spokesman for Speaker Michael Madigan.
Despite rare, celebrated meetings last month between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders, there’s no indication he and Democrats who control the Legislature are any closer to bridging their ideological divide to end a seven-month stalemate.
Rep. David Harris, the Revenue and Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, said he’s not optimistic for a deal — but hopes he’s wrong.
“I’m one of those folks who believes there can be a middle ground and that middle ground requires some compromise,” said Harris, from Mount Prospect. “And we have to get to a middle ground.”
If compromise comes, it may be in the form of two budgets — the one that’s overdue and one for next year, Harris said.
Also hovering over lawmakers is the state’s $111 billion pension debt. The state Supreme Court threw out the General Assembly’s suggested fix last year, but with no major proposals pending, any progress is likely to be slow.
The state’s budget for the current year should’ve taken effect July 1, but Rauner rejected the plan lawmakers sent him. He has said a budget agreement should include reforms he believes will benefit the state’s economy, like curbing the power of unions, setting term limits for lawmakers and passing measures to reduce businesses’ costs.
Democrats say the things Rauner wants have nothing to do with a state budget.
“He chose to put us into chaos and turmoil,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Democratic leader.
Democrats want a combination of cuts and a tax increase to settle the dispute and plug a multibillion deficit. Rauner is open to increasing taxes but only if he gets his suggested reforms, saying he won’t “put in a significant new tax and change nothing.”
“That’s going to continue the long-term decline of the state that’s been going on for decades and I’m not going to do that,” he told reporters last week.
The state has managed without a budget because of court orders and stop-gap measures. Last month, lawmakers and Rauner agreed to spend $3 billion from special funds. A third of that went toward paying state lottery winners, while emergency dispatch call centers and 52 domestic-violence shelters also received funding to stay afloat.
Stop-gap measures may become the norm for now, said Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Buffalo Grove Democrat.
“I could imagine a situation where we continue to piecemeal budget based on the crisis du jour,” she said.
The budget crisis’ effects are widespread: Hundreds of college students are finding out they won’t be getting tuition subsidies, social service agencies that provide cancer screening and other health care have gone unfunded or had funding severely cut and Chicago Public Schools is bracing for the possibility of laying of hundreds of teachers.
Rep. Patricia Bellock, a Republican from Westmont who’s on the House Budget Oversight Panel, said Illinois residents “don’t want a tug of war between Republicans and Democrats” and legislators need to find a compromise.