Senate passes budget that Republicans — with Rauner’s OK — call ‘balanced’
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SPRINGFIELD — Without the fanfare and drama underlying a nearly three-year budget impasse, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday night moved quickly to pass a budget deemed a true compromise by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The Illinois Senate voted 56-2 to approve the $38.5 billion spending plan. The Illinois House planned to take up the budget on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session.
There were no accusations lobbed, or political fodder on the Senate floor. At a brief Senate committee to discuss the budget, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, even dubbed this year’s process a “love fest.”
State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, noted the most contentious moment of the budget talks was a Twinkie thrown at his head by fellow budgeteer state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
The process was like night and day from 2017, when lawmakers struggled to pass a spending plan to get the state back on track. If all goes well, lawmakers are in a position to pass a budget that Republicans — with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s approval — say is balanced.
“This is a legislatively driven budget, as it should be,” state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said on the Senate floor. “Rank-and-file members across both chambers and across both parties came together and crafted what it is we’re supposed to do and under normal circumstances.”
Hutchinson noted, “It hadn’t been that way in Illinois for a while.”
Rose called the budget a “deliberate compromise” and proof that “if you do it right, you get to a fair product.”
Chief budget negotiator state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, called the budget a sign of a “true nature of compromise.” Steans said the budget agreement was the result of a rebuilding of trust.
“Trust begets trust,” Steans said. “People came back with counterproposals that they couldn’t accept, rather than just walk away from the table. More trust kept building up.”
The budget would spend nearly $38.5 billion and includes major pension savings. The bulk of those savings would come from voluntary buyouts for people eligible for state pensions. Former state workers could opt out of their pension at 60 percent of the value and choose to invest that money elsewhere. Lawmakers used a Missouri model, and said the proposed estimate came from the pension systems themselves. Other savings include a 3 percent compounding cost-of-living adjustment for employees in retirement who are now covered by the state’s most expensive packages. Those retirees would be able to cash out for 60 percent of the value and utilize the more basic cost-of living adjustment.
There are some contingencies, such as the inclusion of sale of the James R. Thompson Center to bring in $300 million. The sale has been a point of contention for years and was also in Rauner’s budget proposal last year.
But the spending plan largely takes advantage of revenue from an income tax hike enacted by lawmakers last year. It’s the same hike Rauner has railed against for more than a year, but one that senators said allowed the budget to be truly balanced this year.
“We’re in a more fiscally stable place right now,” Steans said earlier Wednesday. “Not until last year when we did the revenue vote did we really provide some ability to do a balanced budget. So we have a base that enables the math to work.”
The plan also included assumed savings in pension cuts.
The budget fully funds the governor’s capital program, including $2.5 billion for the Illinois Department of Transportation. It also includes $500 million for a proposed Discovery Partners’ Institute through the University of Illinois — a project both Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have touted as a significant addition to the state’s educational landscape. About $53 million would go towards helping to build a new Quincy veterans’ home. There’s also $1 million to start a port redevelopment effort in Cairo.
A supplemental measure would provide $1.3 billion to help pay for expenses that built up during the impasse.
For days, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced optimism about this year’s budget process, which was largely conducted quietly and behind-the-scenes. The governor has been involved in budget talks but has been publicly quiet.
The governor hasn’t take reporters’ questions for a week and had no scheduled media availabilities on Thursday, despite the possibility a budget would be passed.
The framework also includes an additional $350 million for evidence-based funding for school districts, which will help the state in a years long process of meeting an adequacy target. There’s also an additional $50 million for early childhood education and an increase of 2 percent to universities and community colleges.
And a new $25 million tuition grant will provide additional tuition assistance to try to stem the tide of students fleeing Illinois.