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Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Democratic legislative leaders herald budget deal, but day ends without a vote

Chicago Tribune

Thursday, May 25, 2023  |  Article  |  Dan Petrella, Jeremy Gorner and Rick Pearson

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois legislative leaders announced Wednesday afternoon they had a a deal on a roughly $50 billion state budget that they planned to quickly bring to the Senate floor, but the chamber adjourned about seven hours later without voting on the measure.

The latest delay comes after lawmakers missed a self-imposed deadline Friday for approving a spending plan amid dissension among Democrats, who control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, over how to balance the ballooning cost of a health care program for immigrants with other party priorities.

The budget was formally filed around 9 p.m. Wednesday, giving the Senate little time to take action by the end of the day and allow the legislature to follow the procedural requirements necessary to meet its newly established goal of finishing the spring session by Friday.

Before lawmakers called it a night, pushing session into at least the weekend, a spokesman for Democratic Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park said the legislation was “being reviewed by all parties to ensure it reflects the agreement we have.”

Legislators have until May 31 to approve a budget with a simple majority. After that, it would require a three-fifths vote in favor in both the House and Senate. Democratic supermajorities in both chambers are strong enough to meet the higher threshold.

The agreement Pritzker announced in his ceremonial statehouse office alongside Harmon and Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside makes good on the governor’s proposals to expand access to early childhood and higher education, among other priorities.

But the Medicaid-style program for immigrants will continue to put pressure on the state budget. The spending plan Pritzker proposed in February pegged the cost of the program at $220 million, but his administration later increased that estimate to $1.1 billion, though some Democratic lawmakers and advocates questioned those projections.

The budget deal allocates about $550 million for the program, according to the governor’s office, and gives the administration “tools” to control the costs.

Pritzker agreed to assume any political liabilities for controlling future costs of the program after Democratic lawmakers refused to cut funding in other programs or enact the governor’s recommended cost controls, such as copays or income limitations.

“The Senate and the House have agreed to give us the tools to manage the program properly,” Pritzker said, adding that it “allows us to provide health care for the people who are on the program now and make sure that we’re continuing the program going forward, but in a budget-friendly way so that everybody gets the health care that they need.”

The program covers immigrants 42 and older who are in the country without legal permission or who have green cards but haven’t completed a five-year waiting period and therefore don’t qualify for the traditional insurance program for the poor.

Pritzker, eyeing a potential future run for president, had been reluctant to put limitations on a program highly prized by members of the Latino caucus, who had actually wanted to see it expanded for younger immigrants. That expansion was among the first budget wishes to be rejected, but it’s unclear if program supporters will be satisfied by whatever cost controls Pritzker ends up enforcing.

Still, the agreement on how to move forward with the program represents another example of a risk-adverse Democratic-led General Assembly, which let Pritzker take any criticism for running the state through his emergency orders during the pandemic with little to no pushback.

Some Democratic lawmakers had been pushing to increase spending in other areas, including funding for elementary and high schools. The budget deal would increase overall school funding by $350 million over the current year, an annual goal established in state law that some had wanted to go beyond.

There’s also been pressure from new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to increase state support for the city’s effort to provide services to migrants arriving from the country’s southern border. At the afternoon news conference, Pritzker would not say how much money the budget deal includes to help the city with those costs. But the legislation filed six hours later showed a $42.5 million allocation to be shared among the city and the rest of Cook County.

The agreement would preserve Pritzker’s top priority, a $250 million proposal to boost services for the state’s youngest residents and their families, including an expansion of state-funded preschool programs.

This year’s budget process was further complicated because tax revenue has begun to slow from the record levels seen last year, putting pressure on Democrats to hold the line on spending while also funding lawmakers’ priorities.

In announcing the deal, Pritzker emphasized that the spending plan was balanced and included the education funding he sought.

“As governor, it’s my job to not just look at what’s right in front of us but to prepare for what’s ahead, five, 10, 50 years down the road,” Pritzker said. “And like the past four budgets, this budget look towards a future, a future where every child gets a quality education from cradle to career and where every parent has access to the child care and training that they need to get a better paying job, a future where every Illinoisan has a safe place to call home, a safe community to live in, a future where economic security means the opportunity for anyone and everyone to prosper.”

The budget would include an additional $100 million for Monetary Award Program grant funding for college students. The Pritzker administration said that money would ensure that students at or below the median income can attend community college for free.

There would also be an increase of $100 million in higher education spending, with $80.5 million going to public, four-year universities and $19.4 million to community colleges. The investments come after faculty and staff members at Governors State University, Eastern Illinois University and Chicago State University briefly went on strike last month.

The budget would provide an increase of $85 million to support homelessness prevention, affordable housing and other programs related to a vision of “ending homelessness in the state.” The budget also includes a $20 million investment in a new Illinois Grocery Initiative to expand grocery access to urban neighborhoods and rural towns.

There would be a more than $200 million increase to help residents with developmental disabilities, and the embattled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services would receive an increase of nearly $75 million to hire 192 staffers and for improving facilities and other agency functions.

The proposed funding increase for services for developmentally disabled people was criticized as insufficient by a group representing providers, who for several years have been pushing the state for larger increases to come into compliance with a federal consent decree.

The Illinois Association of Rehabilitation Facilities has called for a $4 wage increase for front-line workers in the industry, but the agreement would cover only a $2-per-hour increase.

“We regretfully must oppose this and any other state budget proposal that includes a proposed wage structure for our frontline workers that will not meet their needs and leave our workforce crisis intact,” Josh Evans, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday.

Other budget items include $22.8 million for a children’s behavioral health program, an $18 million increase to support reproductive health programs and $53.5 million for the Illinois Department of Public Health to prepare for future public health emergencies following the COVID-19 pandemic.

There would also be $24 million set aside for rate increases for home workers who assist the aging population, increased outreach for the elderly and an adult day care service.

There would be continued investments in a violence prevention initiative established through legislation in 2021 that called for more than $240 million in spending over multiple years. The program distributes money to groups statewide that specialize in conflict mediation and connects those most at-risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence with therapy and other social services.

The budget also includes $400 million for a fund to help Pritzker attract large businesses to the state. Lawmakers approved similar funding in January, but the money won’t be spent before the end of the current budget year and would be rolled over.

According to the governor’s office, $40 million was also set aside in forgivable loans to launch more social-equity cannabis businesses, and $20 million would be available for capital projects in downtown areas of towns throughout the state.

Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers and could pass a budget without any Republican votes. Harmon, the Senate president, downplayed any dissension among top Democrats as budget negotiations played out.

“Trust among the three of us is at an all-time high,” Harmon said, standing alongside Pritzker and Welch, “and I’m looking forward to finalizing this budget without any deviation from that.”

Senate Republicans were still reviewing the Democrats’ budget after it was filed late Wednesday and Senate GOP Leader John Curran was “still communicating” with Harmon, Senate Republican spokeswoman Whitney Barnes said.

In a statement earlier in the day, House Republican leader Tony McCombie lamented that some of her caucus’s budget priorities, including the extension of a $75 million tax credit program for people who contribute to private school scholarships, were not included in the Democratic budget.

“Today we learned from Gov. Pritzker and Democratic leaders that our shared priorities are not included. I am incredibly disappointed for Illinois families,” she said.

Pearson reported from Chicago. Tribune reporter Hank Sanders contributed from Springfield.