Springfield – The 2016 spring legislative session came to a close on May 31 as scheduled, but many issues remain unresolved – including and most-importantly – a complete and constitutional state budget. Like 2015, the summer installment of legislative activity is about to begin in the coming days and weeks.
Last Minute Shenanigans
In the final hours of the scheduled spring session, the Senate considered a wildly unbalanced and bloated state budget approved by House Democrats a week earlier. Senate Bill 2048 originally was passed by the Senate on May 5 as a bipartisan higher education funding plan, but it was altered in the House to include an entire state budget plan. The House Democrat proposal was $7.5 billion out of balance and would spend $40 billion. It would be the largest and most expensive state budget in Illinois history. It also would have imposed a massive tax hike on every Illinois family.
Ultimately, common sense prevailed in the Senate, as Senate Bill 2048 received only 17 Senate votes in support, far less than the 30 required for approval. While most of the “no” votes came from Republicans, Senate Republicans offered realistic budget alternatives to ensure that K-12 schools open on time this fall and basic government operations remain open.
“The Democrat majority cannot even find agreement among themselves, let alone with Republican lawmakers representing our districts,” said Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) said. “It’s going to take reasonableness and common sense to get to a bipartisan compromise so that our state can move forward. At a minimum, we need a budget plan in place that ensures our schools will open this fall. We cannot allow our children to be held hostage to political games and one-upmanship. We also cannot succumb to Democrat pressure to bail out Chicago Public Schools at the expense of every other school district in the state.”
Realistic State Budget
Despite tentative optimism heading into the weekend before the scheduled May 31 legislative adjournment that a compromise could be reached on a balanced state budget and economy-boosting, job-creating structural reforms, Democrat leaders continued to slow-walk the process, stymying progress and leading the General Assembly to once again leave Springfield in May without an agreement.
In response, Senate Republicans introduced a six month, fully funded bridge budget, Senate Bill 3435, that would give the Legislature and the Governor time to work on a long-term plan to put Illinois back on the road to financial recovery. Despite previously suggesting a stop-gap budget just days before the end of the scheduled session, Senate President John Cullerton refused to allow the measure to be called for a vote in the Senate.
The measure would address immediate priorities and keep basic government services operational. Key components include: ensuring federal funds coming to Illinois for social service providers continue without interruption, $600 million for higher education, $180 million for human service providers not covered by court-ordered state payments, $450 million for food service, utilities and medical services at state prisons and mental health facilities, and to pay for essential services at state-run institutions. The measure would also provide funding for public construction projects, such as roads, bridges and emergency repairs at state facilities.
The stop-gap plan also includes funding to take care of the programs, services and old bills left unfunded and unpaid by the lack of a Fiscal Year 2016 budget, and not covered by court orders, consent decrees and the parts of government that receive automatic annual funding.
To ensure schools can open in the fall, Senate Republicans introduced Senate Bill 3434, which would provide a full-year funding for elementary and secondary schools, increasing state funding for education by $226 million. It is an affordable plan and includes full funding for General State Aid claims for the first time in seven years. It would also ensure that no districts receive less funding than a year ago. Other highlights of the plan include an additional $75 million for Early Childhood Education, level funding for state mandated programs and additional funding for Agricultural Education ($1.8 million) and Lowest Performing Schools ($1 million).
However, Senate Democrats refused to allow Senate Bill 3434 be considered, instead passing their own stand-alone education funding measure on the last day. However, it was not a cooperative effort. The Democrat-crafted measure (House Bill 2990) would have increased education spending by nearly $1 billion, but it was more fantasy than reality. It proposed to spend money the state simply does not have and cannot afford.
Another unacceptable part of the plan is that most of the new money would be directed to the Chicago Public Schools as a bailout for its teacher pension system. It also would create a new, but uncertain “Equity Grant” to calculate financial support for schools, and whose impact the State Board of Education cannot determine. The legislation would also establish a new funding formula for schools that has not been evaluated. Though the measure was pushed through the Senate just prior to adjournment on May 31, the proposal fell short of passage in the House.
Undeterred and Hopeful
It was unfortunate that the Republican initiatives were not considered in the last days of the scheduled session. While it’s disappointing the General Assembly failed for the second year in a row to approve a state budget by May 31, there are hopeful signs of an eventual resolution to Illinois’ budget crisis.
Session days are expected to be scheduled on a weekly basis and working groups of lawmakers are also planning to continue meeting on unresolved issues, including the government and economic reforms sought by Republicans and the Governor.
Senate Republicans will continue to push for a complete and constitutional state budget, which means spending must match revenues. The Caucus will also insist on real reforms to rebuild and revitalize our state economy before any consideration of new taxes. Growing the economy and providing opportunities and prosperity for working families is the best and long-term way back to fiscal good health. After years of truly unbalanced budgets, Illinois is faced with unprecedented debt and deficits. According to a recent report* from the Illinois Comptroller’s office, the state’s backlog of more than 45,000 bills – money owed to social service agencies and vendors – totals nearly $7 billion.
*- As of June 2, 2016