The Illinois House was back in session Sunday as doubts remain about whether Democrats who control the chamber can unite behind a budget to pay for schools, universities and social service programs.
There is much to figure out between now and Wednesday's scheduled adjournment, and at the top of that list is whether there's enough support among House Democrats for the tax hikes needed to help balance the books. It's a politically risky move many are reluctant to take amid opposition from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose vast wealth is already being tapped by the Illinois Republican Party to fund advertisements and robocalls targeting potentially vulnerable Democrats.
That has raised the specter that lawmakers for the second year in a row will blow past their deadline without sending a spending plan to Rauner, leaving both sides to try to scrape together some sort of funding agreement before the new budget year begins July 1.
"It is a hard, grueling process to do this," said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who serves as a key budget negotiator for House Speaker Michael Madigan. "It is the proverbial herding of the cats to get all these folks to a consensus."
House Democrats began the day with a series of hearings to delve into the nitty-gritty of a budget plan passed by Senate Democrats a week earlier. That proposal relies on more than $5 billion in new revenue from a combination of income tax hikes, expansion of the sales tax and new levies on satellite and streaming television services.
Later, House Democrats spent nearly two hours in a closed-door meeting debating various alternative revenue plans, but emerged without a consensus on how to proceed. Madigan has long insisted Republicans must share in the blame for any potential tax hikes.Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune
House Democrats are divided on whether to vote for a tax hike that Gov. Bruce Rauner vows to veto.
House Democrats are divided on whether to vote for a tax hike that Gov. Bruce Rauner vows to veto.(Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Rank-and-file members were divided: Some were reluctant to vote to raise taxes, knowing Rauner is likely to veto the plan and try to score political points ahead of his 2018 re-election bid, while others wanted to vote for a budget plan given that they expect to be attacked either way.
"We could potentially do the right thing, have the governor veto it, potentially try to push it past him, and have him still come out and say, 'Well, I still didn't want this. I get all the benefits of having a budget, but none of the political pain,'" said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago. "I think there's real reluctance to do that."
Mitchell said House Democrats also were spooked by what they saw happen in the Senate, where Democrats decided to go on their own following months of negotiations with Republicans.
"So mimicking that experience in the House, I don't think appeals to a lot of people," Mitchell said.
As Democrats were behind closed doors, Rauner budget director Scott Harry sent a letter to House members warning the governor would veto the Senate plan should it make it to his desk. Harry estimated the budget and tax plan was at least $435 million out of balance, and said it does nothing to pay down the bill backlog or put in place economic changes the governor has pushed such as a property tax freeze.
"In sum, the House is considering a broken budget contingent on a large tax hike without any meaningful property tax relief or job creating reforms, which even if enacted would not even balance the budget," Harry wrote, calling the proposal a "lose-lose for taxpayers."
Indeed, House Democrats also suggested the Senate plan is not balanced, and many members are opposed to making the taxes in the plan retroactive to Jan. 1, which would take a bigger chunk of out paychecks.
During Sunday's budget hearings, Democrats also zeroed in on spending cuts within the plan, including a 5 percent cut for most state agencies, and a 10 percent cut for universities that have been hit particularly hard as the state has stumbled along without a full budget for nearly two years.
"What kind of message are we sending to our universities … and our future generations?" said Rep. Laura Fine, D-Glenview. "I am a mom who wants my kids to stay in Illinois, but as you are telling me right now, this is getting more and more difficult."
Also weighing in on the Senate budget was the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood nonprofit agency headed by Diana Rauner, the governor's wife.
Ireta Gasner, assistant director at Ounce, told lawmakers that the nonprofit was supportive of the extra early childhood education funding in the Senate budget but urged them to increase the amount from $35 million to $50 million, which is what Rauner requested in February.
She also warned that because of the backlog of bills caused by the nearly two-year budget impasse, simply appropriating money for schools wouldn't be enough this time around.
"The longer this impasse goes on and with the cash flow problems the state is experiencing, early childhood programs funded through the state board didn't see any payments for the school year that started last fall until January," Gasner said. "Whether you have an appropriation or not, at this point, it kind of doesn't matter because this impasse is having lasting and significant damage to early childhood programs across the state."
Chicago Tribune's Haley BeMiller contributed.
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