Gov. J.B. Pritzker could be in for a tough year

Pritzker’s huge legislative success in 2019 was an aberration. It was a legislative expression of joy and relief at finally having a governor who wanted to work with them.

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Newly elected House Speaker Chris Welch may have a more pointed relationship than his predecessor, Mike Madigan, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Rich Miller writes.

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“The legislature is going to be a check on the executive branch,” newly elected House Speaker Chris Welch flatly declared to me in an interview the other day.

Welch was responding to a question I posed to him about his Jan. 13 inaugural address, when he asked not-so-rhetorically, “Why is it difficult to ensure that families’ unemployment checks continue unabated and arrive on time so struggling families can feed their children? Why is that hard to grasp?”

Welch’s predecessor as House speaker, Michael J. Madigan, stayed completely mum about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and resulting mass unemployment, though the governor occasionally took verbal shots at Madigan and called on him to resign if he refused to answer questions about the ComEd investigation.

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Not a single House committee hearing has been held about the backlog of unemployment checks at the Illinois Department of Employment Security or, for that matter, all the other migraine headaches legislators have been dealing with as desperate constituents turn to them for assistance when they can’t get through to a state agency. That could very well change.

Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, warned the governor last week via the publication Center Square that the House could “hold up some of these funds, even federal dollars” to IDES if members don’t start getting answers to their questions. Crespo was instrumental in corralling votes for Welch and has been the chair of the House General Services Appropriations Committee.

“It’s not a threat, I think it’s more, I think it’s an education,” Crespo told Center Square. “They’re new, and make sure they understand the process.”

“I’m going to have an open and ongoing relationship with the governor to express what I’m hearing from our members,” Welch told me.

Welch didn’t come right out and say it, but what he is hearing from his members about the governor ain’t all that great these days, as Rep. Crespo could attest.

In the just-concluded lame-duck session of the Legislature, in which both of Pritzker’s top priorities failed to pass, the governor’s administration appears to have gotten a taste of what may come later this year.

A bill to decouple the state from federal business tax breaks (depending on whom you talk to) worth $400 million to $1 billion to the state coffers received just 50 votes in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning. Nine Black Caucus members did not vote for the bill. Most voted either “present” or took a walk, but Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Olympia Fields, voted “No.”

Black Caucus members are usually reliable votes for revenue increases. Not that day.

Welch didn’t vote on the decoupling bill, either. He explained early on Wednesday morning that he was “distracted” (though the roll call was held open for quite a long while) and would vote for the bill again when the time came, but that time never came.

The Senate played games with the governor’s must-have cannabis cleanup bill, waiting until almost 2 a.m. on Wednesday to pass it pretty much as the governor wanted. But by then it was too late for the House to act.

The Senate seemed to many to be deliberately slow-walking important bills for the governor and for others during the last couple days of session. “I’m pretty sure this bill that we’re debating right now was sent to us about six hours ago from the House,” grumbled one senator at 5:37 a.m. on Wednesday.

The House Democrats were heavily distracted by their election of a new speaker, and some white north suburban Democrats were prepared to go “on strike” if the cannabis bill was passed without allowing their dispensaries to move to better locations, which was a deal-killer for the Black Caucus.

In the end, the lame-duck session was a significant failure for the Pritzkeradministration. Yes, there were tons of extenuating circumstances. But the administration knew ever since the veto session was canceled in November that a lame-duck session was a distinct probability. They had two months to prepare and now have precious little to show for it except for the Black Caucus agenda that they weren’t in charge of.

Pritzker’s huge legislative success in 2019 was an aberration. It was a legislative expression of joy and relief at having a governor who wanted to work with them to get big things done after 12 years of gubernatorial ineptitude and outright hostility toward the General Assembly. But if they don’t address whatever issues there are with Senate President Don Harmon, woo the new House speaker and start tending to member egos, they’re in for a very rough spring.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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