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Legislature comes through with much-needed votes after rocky start to session

The grownups asserted themselves in the Illinois Legislature, settled things down and accomplished more than we might have predicted.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, takes notes at his desk — spaced six feet from the desks of other lawkmakers — during a legislative session on Saturday in Springfield.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, takes notes at his desk — spaced six feet from the desks of other lawkmakers — during the legislative session on Saturday in Springfield.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Last week’s session of the state Legislature was shaping up as the goofiest in Illinois history, with downstate clowns refusing to wear masks amid the pandemic while calling Gov. J.B. Pritzker a “domestic enemy.”

Then something welcome happened.

The grownups asserted themselves, settled things down and brought to the proceedings a modicum of bipartisanship. They accomplished the basics, plus a little more, at a time when it was in doubt whether they even would meet.

Wrapping up a four-day session on Saturday night into Sunday morning, lawmakers voted to expand mail-in voting, which will be essential during this fall’s elections because of the coronavirus. They took steps to ease the financial pain of people hit hard by the pandemic, expanding unemployment benefits, health care and rental assistance. They came to the aid of families of first responders who have died from COVID-19, making it more likely they will receive death benefits.

Most surprisingly, the House and Senate fixed legislation that had been holding up the development of a Chicago casino. And most inevitably, they voted along strict party lines to approve a $41 billion placeholder budget, which to our thinking was about all they could do for now.

A budget that marks time

The state’s 2020-2021 fiscal year begins July 1. The budget pushed through by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate authorizes Pritzker to borrow up to $5 billion if necessary, and it leaves it to the Democratic governor to be the bad guy, potentially slashing expenses, if and when all else fails.

Republicans howled behind their face masks about the $5 billion in borrowing, but they couldn’t offer a better idea.

The state’s finances, for budgeting purposes, are more up in the air than at any time in history. The numbers will grow firmer in the coming months, especially once Illinois learns how much assistance will be coming from Washington.

“We don’t know the depths of the economic hit we’ve taken from this virus. We don’t know how much more we’re going to have to spend in order to respond to it,” Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, told reporters at the end of the session. “In the next several months, we’re going to know all of that.”

Rallying for a Chicago casino

Thankfully, the Legislature outdid expectations in approving a bill that is likely, finally, to bring a casino to Chicago, potentially generating substantial new revenue for a city and state that were reeling financially even before the pandemic. The legislation revises the tax structure for a Chicago casino, which currently is so onerous that potential developers say they’d never make a decent profit.

The casino bill drew bipartisan support, passing 77-32 in the House and 42-14 in the Senate, because the city and state’s finances are a bipartisan mess, no matter what the political fringe players might say. The pandemic has been strictly nonpartisan in ravaging the state’s economy. Everybody’s looking for a lifeline.

The state of Illinois is counting on a Chicago casino for about 40% of the revenue it needs to fund the non-roads part of a massive capital construction program. The money is to be used to build things like new schools and park district facilities across the state.

The city of Chicago is counting on a casino to create a stable revenue stream for the city’s underfunded police officer and firefighter pensions, too.

How realistic those intentions are, we don’t think anybody can say. Revenue estimates for a Chicago casino have always been sketchy, and the pandemic has made them sketchier. Brick-and-mortar casinos have been struggling for years in the face of expanded online gambling, and it’s an open question whether gamblers will return in the same numbers to casinos once the pandemic has passed.

All the more important, then, that Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago aldermen, state lawmakers and the Illinois Gaming Board be on the same page in choosing a site for a casino that maximizes the potential revenue.

The casino bill is a big win for the first-term mayor, and we hope the recent collaboration we’ve seen between Pritzker, a first-term governor, and her on a variety of issues — not the least of which is public health and safety amid COVID-19 — continues. It also shows Pritzker’s ability to continue to work across both sides of the aisle, something that became abundantly evident during last year’s legislative session.

Goofiness kept to a minimum

Our modest hope for this strange and truncated legislative session, with everybody sitting six feet apart and the usual schmoozing put on hold, was that the House and Senate would pass some kind of time-marking budget without getting derailed by right-wing excitables.

There was state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, for one, who refused to wear a mask during the first day of the session and had to be escorted out. And there was that protester outside the Bank of Springfield Convention Center, where the House was meeting, who held up a sign comparing Pritzker, who is Jewish, to Adolf Hitler.

But House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs — one of those adults we mentioned earlier — walked up and told her the sign was deeply offensive. And, he said, she wasn’t helping her cause.

Mostly we saw lawmakers, though not thrilled to be meeting during a pandemic, deciding that, what the heck, they’d better get something done.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues. And Illinois waits on Washington. And the full extent of the wallop to the state’s finances remains to be seen.

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