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After Pritzker’s budget address, lawmakers jockey for their own spending priorities

State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, speaks at a news conference with fellow members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Wednesday in response to Gov. JB Pritzker's state budget address.
Credit: Blueroomstream.com
State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, speaks at a news conference with fellow members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Wednesday in response to Gov. JB Pritzker's state budget address.

Even factoring in the possibility of a “mild recession” this year, the proposed budget Gov. JB Pritzker laid out on Wednesday includes nearly $50 billion in state spending, bolstered by projections of continued near record-high tax revenues.

Without invoking partisan labels, the governor painted Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility, contrasting the dysfunction of a two-year budget impasse under his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, with the rosy budget outlook predicted for the coming year.

“You, the majority of the General Assembly, are succeeding,” Pritzker said Wednesday, speaking to the Democratic lawmakers who comprise supermajorities in both the Illinois House and Senate. “You, the majority of the people of Illinois who elected the General Assembly, the constitutional officers, and me, are succeeding. Together, we’ve slogged through the tough times and are making the responsible decisions for our future.”

But as Illinois’ recent history indicates, state government controlled by one party doesn’t mean negotiations are easy. And with an expanded Democratic majority in the House – 78 members, up from 73 after November’s election – intra-party disagreements on state budget priorities could be a test of Democratic unity this spring.

New spending

Pritzker’s $49.6 billion budget proposal includes a host of new programs in addition to expanding existing spending, especially in the areas of education and human services.

The governor’s early childhood education plan, dubbed Smart Start Illinois, would funnel $250 million annually toward expanding both preschool and child care programs statewide. During the pandemic, child care programs suffered while many mothers left the workforce in the face of limited access to child care.

Pritzker also proposed spending nearly $250 million more in higher education and job training programs, including a $100 million boost to the state’s Monetary Award Program, known as MAP grants, which sends low-income students to state schools. Another $100 million of that chunk would be spent on increasing funds for community colleges and public universities’ operating budgets – the largest cash infusion for higher education in two decades.

While Democrats applauded Pritzker’s vision, some also noted the governor’s proposal would only spend the minimum dollar amount – $350 million – required by state law to increase Illinois’ funding for K-12 education, as outlined in a landmark 2018 law overhauling school funding.

While he celebrated his efforts, Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said the state needs to invest $200 million more in the funding formula to address the Black community’s lack of resources and disproportionate impact, particularly in education.

“Part of our desire is to make sure that (Pritzker) acknowledges that Black communities are the ones that have been left behind more so than any other community,” Davis said. “We need to put those resources or make sure those resources touch Black communities in a greater way than they have in the past.”

State Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, D-Chicago, agreed.

“We are fully aware that if we only do a $350 million increase annually, we’re not going to reach adequacy by 2027,” she said. “I think that’s very well-established. So we will definitely be deep in those negotiations to see how much more we can add on top of that.”

Members of the General Assembly’s powerful Black Caucus, as well as its growing Latino Caucus, have demands of their own.

The Latino Caucus, for example, will be seeking a major expansion of Medicaid coverage to undocumented immigrant adults – those not currently covered by laws passed in the last few years aimed at coverage of undocumented youth and seniors. Details on that plan – including cost – will be introduced at a later date, caucus members said Wednesday.

Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, the chair of the House’s General Services Appropriations Committee, said with so many new members of his party comes increased demands on resources. And Crespo warned that Democrats should not be blind to the source of the state’s recent surpluses.

“Consumer spending is driven by the pandemic, so that’s not going to last,” he said. “(Pritzker) had a lot of positive things to say today but he added a lot of new spending…two years of surpluses does not make a pattern. That’s not a trend and we should not look at it that way.”

Crespo ticked off a list of coming budgetary pressures, including a drop-off in the COVID-era extra federal Medicaid dollars coming later this spring, money needed to fund pretrial services under the state’s law eliminating cash bail if the Illinois Supreme Court upholds it this spring, and contract negotiations with the state’s largest public employee union, AFSCME.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who in recent days had warned members of her own party that creating new spending programs wasn’t the fiscally prudent thing to do, changed her tune after Pritzker’s speech Wednesday.

“My concern has always been to make sure that we’re not frivolously spending money, that we have to hold the line on making sure that we don’t overextend ourselves financially,” Mendoza said. “Funding those specific programs strategically means there are other dollars that are freed up to do things like increase payments for our developmentally disabled providers, teacher shortage areas…being able to invest some dollars in economic growth with business grants and things like that.”

After his graduated income tax plan failed at the ballot box in 2020, Pritzker warned “there will be cuts, and they will be painful.” But so far, better-than-expected revenues have meant that warning has not borne out, and the governor has mostly stayed away from talking about revisiting the issue in the last two years.

But Sen. Rob Martwick, D-Chicago, recently floated the idea again, and he maintains Illinois will eventually reach a fiscal cliff without it – especially if the state doesn’t start paying more toward its unfunded pension liability year over year.

“All this progress we’ve made, a graduated income tax structure could put us on the path to better revenue growth, but it’s in a position to solve our problems and give the middle class what it needs: serious tax relief,” Martwick said.

GOP response

Republicans, who have been in the superminority for much of the last 15 years in the Senate and most of the past decade in the House, were silent for the majority of Pritzker’s speech, contrasting Democrats’ frequent cheering for the governor’s proposal.

After the speech, some praised the governor’s focus on early childhood education and initiatives to lower the costs of higher education. But many more were skeptical of the state’s ability to fund those plans.

“How we’re going to pay for it is where we fall short,” House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said after the budget address. “There’s absolutely no structural reforms in this budget proposal.”

McCombie emphasized House Republicans also want to invest in the state’s vulnerable populations, but her party needs to be invited to budget negotiations to do so.

“We have a lot of resources within the Republican Caucus,” McCombie said. “Take our ideas and let us help you.”

Republicans warned that implementing new programs could inevitably lead to a fiscal cliff if the economy turns or Illinois’ finances deteriorate, leaving the state with two options: cut off that spending or raise taxes to support it.

“This is the governor’s wishlist and I am concerned that there are some things in there that we would be committing long-term spending to that we may not have revenue in the future to fund,” said Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb.

While Hammond commended the governor’s proposed investments in higher education and K-12 education funding, she said she’d like to see more focus on programs serving disabled individuals and long-term care programs.

The governor’s proposal does, however, include $450 million that would be allocated over several years toward preserving and growing the health care workforce, focusing particularly on Medicaid providers and providers in rural and other underserved areas across the state.

Other Republicans balked at Pritzker’s repeated emphasis on social issues throughout his speech, including the continued expansion of reproductive health care in Illinois as other Midwestern states restrict abortion access.

“I’m a pro-life guy, have been all my life,” said Rep. Dave Severin, R-Benton. “Those agendas that the governor has…are disappointing to me that we’re drawing people from all over the Midwest to come to the state for (access to abortions).”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.