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EDITORIAL: From ‘impasse’ to ‘get it passed,’ Illinois surges with stunning legislative session

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is surrounded by both Republicans and Democrats from the Legislature on Sunday as he touts the accomplishments of the spring session.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

All kinds of fun stuff, you might say, is coming your way in Illinois.

You’ll be able to get high on pot legally. You’ll be able to gamble at a Las Vegas-caliber casino in Chicago. You’ll be able to bet on sports online, legally.

None of the above, we must concede, are ideal ways to right our state’s long-sinking financial ship.

But government is about making hard decisions. And new Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislative leaders — often with bipartisan cooperation — made plenty of them during what all parties agree was a historic spring legislative session.

For the first time in decades, both everyday working people and the business community appear to be sharing large pieces of the pie, though we’ll all pay more at the gas pump to help make it happen.

If you ride the CTA Blue Line, $81.5 million in repairs are coming your way. If you ride the Green Line, upgrades are coming, too.

If you pay property taxes, you might be pleased to know the state is increasing funding to public schools, hoping to ease your tax burden.

If you live in the sticks and get lousy internet service, you might be pleased the state is about to spend $400 million to expand broadband internet access.

If you work for the minimum wage, $8.25 an hour, you’ll be getting a raise. If you’re a young person from a low-income family, you might be in for some of the $50 million extra in college tuition grants the state is setting aside.

All of this, and considerably more, was accomplished in a session that was a throwback to the days of a bolder and more confident Illinois, to an era when governors and legislators, for all their differences, worked in a bipartisan way to do big things.

Even back then, there may never have been a legislative session quite so productive as this one.

To understand the political and historic significance of the session that ended Sunday, it helps to look past the sexier stuff such as recreational marijuana and casinos. Look, instead, at the way in which Democrats and Republicans — driven in part by a shared personal resentment toward a governor now gone — worked together to create a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

For four years, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner had held the state’s budget hostage to an unyielding conservative ideology that was more about tearing down — eviscerating unions and stomping on Democrats — than building up. He controlled his own fellow Republicans more by fear than respect, threatening to use his great wealth to defeat for re-election any GOP representative or senator who crossed him.

The result was nothing but misery for Illinois, beginning with a piling up of $6.6 billion in unpaid bills. If Rauner’s aim was to make Illinois more business-friendly, he accomplished exactly the opposite.

Now move forward to this past weekend. The Legislature approved a new $40 billion budget crafted by a new governor, Pritzker, with bipartisan support. Illinois will begin to pay down those billions of dollars in old bills. It will boost funding by $100 million to the Department of Children and Family Services, a chronically underfunded agency that is asked to do the near impossible. It will spend $375 million more on education.

More than that, the new budget is business-friendly. It includes the kind of half-loaf, pro-business reforms that never were enough for Rauner, who instead got nothing. The new budget includes an elimination of the state’s franchise tax, the reinstatement of a tax incentive to help manufacturers and a new tax incentive to support data centers in Illinois.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs — who once dutifully did Rauner’s bidding though his own inclinations were to seek common ground — clearly relished no longer being under the former governor’s thumb. In a victory statement after the House voted to approve the budget, Durkin noted how nice it was to “finally do what’s right for Illinois families and businesses.”

The key word there is “finally.”

House Speaker Mike Madigan, too, no doubt was working through bad memories of the former governor. You can bet it spurred the Chicago Democrat to pile up the victories. He was out to show how it’s done.

“In these steps, we see what Illinois can be when its leaders stand up for our middle-class families while still seeking common ground,” Madigan said after the House approved the budget. “When we use our time to build compromises. When we have a governor who encourages Illinois to think big again.”

We have to marvel how Pritzker, a rookie governor, was able to maneuver the power brokers of state government — for better or for worse — to move from “impasse” to “get it passed.”

Besides increased education funding, legalizing recreational marijuana and expanding gambling, the results of this legislative session include but are not limited to:

• The aforementioned bipartisan, balanced state budget. We can’t stress this enough. It should improve the state’s notoriously bad credit ratings with the Wall Street financial institutions that play a large role in how much the state pays to borrow money.

• The $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” capital construction program, financed in part by the doubling of the state’s 19-cent-a-gallon gas tax, other driving-related fee increases and a $1-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax. That money will rebuild state roads and bridges and cover construction of and repairs to public buildings. It will improve safety and help put people to work.

• An agreement on a new contract covering some 40,000 state government employees. The deal with AFSCME Council 31, which is now part of the budget but still subject to ratification by union members, would end more than four years of acrimonious legal fights by Rauner against state workers, indicating a new era of cooperation. AFSCME is the largest union representing state employees.

• Real hope that a graduated income tax, which would force high-income earners to pay higher rates, will replace the existing flat tax structure. Illinois voters will have the ultimate say in 2020 when they vote on a constitutional amendment that state lawmakers recently put on the ballot to decide the issue.

• Health care funding reform, achieved in the state budget by what Pritzker calls the “MCO assessment,” a tax on managed care organizations. State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, told NPR Illinois this maneuver will allow the state “to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars of federal matching dollars to support the state budget.”

• A much-needed hike in the state’s minimum wage — raising it to $15 an hour by 2025. Republicans opposed this, but Democratic muscle pushed it through.

• Passage of the Reproductive Health Act, a welcomed law that will keep abortion and reproductive care safe and accessible in Illinois by repealing decades-old laws that restrict, and in some cases criminalize, abortion.

All that said, we wish lawmakers had balanced the budget without legalizing recreational marijuana. We’re not opposed to legalization, but we wanted to see more definitive answers to pressing questions about the impact on public health and safety.

There also are bills we wish the Legislature had gotten over the goal line but didn’t, including the passage of several sensible gun control reforms and an overhaul of Cook County’s property-tax system, which often shorts the average Joe Homeowner.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be going through the details of that massive gambling package and other legislation, with an eye toward seeing how well it serves all Illinoisans, not just the fat cats. And Pritzker and the General Assembly still have to grapple with the state’s unfunded pension liability.

But as we write this editorial on Sunday evening, the sun is shining after a lot of rain.

The future of Illinois is looking brighter.

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