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Amid impasse, Illinois House clears first hurdle toward budget plan

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. | AP Photo

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House on Friday cleared a hurdle toward a Democratic spending plan — with GOP support — as lawmakers tried to put an end to a draining budget impasse described on the floor as a “nightmare.”

The stalemate’s effects include a sinking state credit rating, the loss of Powerball and Mega Millions lottery games, billions in unpaid bills, and cutbacks at the state’s public universities.

Negotiations continued throughout Friday, with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin meeting twice.

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An appropriations amendment passed the Illinois House 90-25, with 23 Republican votes. It must still be read a third time and passed. From there, it needs Illinois Senate approval. Lawmakers are being summoned back into session Saturday.

There’s still a long path to a resolution. Democrats must drum up support not only for the spending plan, but also for a politically unpopular revenue measure. There’s also a need for a measure to pay the state’s $14.7 billion backlog of unpaid bills.

Saturday marks the first day of a new fiscal year — meaning the state will enter its third straight year without a budget. But there were notes of optimism on Friday.

“We’re close. We’re close. But again, I need to be able to sell it to my caucus and look at it as a whole,” Durkin said en route to his second meeting with the speaker, noting the plan needs to include cuts, reforms and revenue.

“Obviously we haven’t reached a consensus on revenue. That is still something that’s open to negotiation,” Durkin said. “But again, the situation is very fluid and I will say that we’re in — the last two days and today —we’re in a better situation than we were the day before.”

Taking the floor after the vote, Madigan thanked Republicans for their support: “I think it’s a good step forward, a step we can build upon.” The speaker also sent letters to credit rating agencies, which had threatened to downgrade the state to “junk” status come July 1 without a budget, imploring them to “temporarily withhold judgment and allow legislators time to negotiate a bipartisan, balanced budget.”

In his letter, Madigan notes pension and procurement reform, local government consolidation and workers’ compensation changes as “compromises” he wants the governor to recognize.

Durkin said he committed Republican votes on the appropriations measure as a “gesture of good faith.”

In other “good faith” gestures, after the appropriations vote, the Gov. Bruce Rauner-led Illinois Republican Party pulled a digital ad that dubbed the speaker “Junk Madigan.”

Still, there was finger-pointing. In a statement, the speaker dubbed the impasse “the governor’s budget crisis.” Soon after, Rauner approved a bill funding 911 centers, but used his veto powers to remove a Chicago phone tax Mayor Rahm Emanuel was relying on to shore up the Laborer’s pension fund. Despite the measure having passed with Republican support, in his veto message, the governor accused Democrats of a “mean-spirited strategy” that the majority has used for years, using vulnerable residents as leverage to “force excessive, unwarranted tax hikes.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown on Friday questioned the blame: “There’s a lot of hostility in that message. What does he hope to accomplish?” Brown said.

Lawmakers marked their 10th day of special session Friday; Rauner has said he’ll keep legislators in Springfield until “they get the job done.”

“We all know how dire the situation our state is in,” State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said in introducing the plan on the House floor. He implored lawmakers to think about the consequences of no action: the closure of social service agencies, the impact on the disabled, and the loss of jobs due to halted transportation projects.

State Rep. Steve Andersson, R-Geneva, received a standing ovation from House Democrats when he voiced optimism about ending the budget impasse: “I know today we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to save our state. We’re going to save our state together.”

Others tried magnanimity: “We all share the blame, myself included,” State Rep. David Harris, R-Mount Prospect, said. “We have enabled our leaders to get this position and that’s unfortunate that we’re in the position that we’re in. But now is the time to bring this nightmare to end.”