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House Dems dissect budget, tax hike; budget director vows Rauner veto

Gov. Bruce Rauner (pictured on May 18, 2017) has said he won't support a tax hike without a four-year property tax freeze. Rauner's budget director, Scott Harry, on Sunday also sent a letter to House Republicans, saying the governor will veto the Senate Democrats' budget plan without any "significant changes to our broken system." | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — House Democrats continued mulling a controversial tax increase and a spending plan behind closed doors on Sunday, as the clock ticked and as state universities and agencies reminded lawmakers of the dire consequences of having no budget deal.

House lawmakers spent Sunday in committees, and for just over an hour on the House floor, despite the impending Wednesday night legislative deadline amid the historic budget impasse.

House Democrats met privately for the second time to discuss budget bills. Senate Democrats last week approved three budgetary measures: a revenue bill that includes increasing the personal income tax rate to 4.95 percent; a spending bill that relies on the income-tax hike and other revenue increases and an implementation plan that also includes cuts.

The tax hike is the most politically unpopular sticking point, with elections not too far away. And there doesn’t appear to be enough House Democratic support thus far. Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he won’t support a tax hike without a four-year property tax freeze.

Rauner’s budget director Scott Harry on Sunday also sent a letter to House Republicans, saying the governor will veto the Senate Democrats’ budget plan without any “significant changes to our broken system.”

“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.

Harry added that the Senate tax and budget plan would be out of balance by at least $435 million in the fiscal year 2018 and $1 billion in 2019.

House Republicans say they’re frustrated that they’re being kept in the dark regarding the Senate budget bills, or whether House Democrats will even use those bills as vehicles.

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Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, called Sunday’s session “a waste of a precious day.”

“I think [what] I would have liked to have seen happen is communication coming from the House Democrats. Are they going to run their own bill or are they going to work on the Senate bill. It’s still a great mystery,” Durkin said. “That’s how things are and that’s how things work here.”

Durkin said his members are “not interested in doing a repeat of 2011, a tax increase that was thrust upon Illinoisans with no strings attached that did not pay one bill.”

House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang, D-Skokie, on Sunday night said Democrats are discussing the Senate bills, but he noted there’s discussion of “some new items and different ways of looking at things.”

“I think it’s premature. Some might say well, ‘We’re three days away from May 31, how can it be premature?’ ” Lang said. “I think we know that in the life of the General Assembly, three days is a lifetime.”

Earlier at a House appropriations committee, the Illinois State Board of Elections warned that it won’t be able to pay for licensing and virus protection software on its system computers come September without a budget in place.

They noted a Senate spending plan provides “essential needs” for the agency but includes a 5 percent cut from what was already a “very lean, bare essential budget.” There are no funds to help implement automatic voter registration, which cleared the Senate.

“We would essentially have to disconnect ourself from the internet to prevent any viruses from entering our system and network,” said Jeremy Kirk, director of administrative services for the Illinois State Board of Elections, noting the state is behind $9,000 in payments for the virus protection. “. . . In short, we would have to start turning things off.”

Kirk called the virus software “essential” in light of a hack of election data last year.

The agency said it’s running “on the generosity of vendors.”

Heads of public universities told a separate House committee they’ll still face challenges even with an enacted Senate spending plan, but it’s better than nothing. Chicago State University noted it won’t be able to pay MAP grants come this fall without a spending plan in place.

The Senate budget plan cuts higher education funding by 10 percent from the last full year of funding.