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Another Legislative Session Ends Without a Budget for Illinois

Spring session ended with another thud Wednesday, as Democratic fear of blowback from raising taxes trumped a desire by some to put a spending plan on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk.

By Monique Garcia, Kim Geiger and Haley Bemiller

Spring session ended with another thud Wednesday, as Democratic fear of blowback from raising taxes trumped a desire by some to put a spending plan on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk.

The end result is that for the second year in a row, partisan dysfunction at the Capitol sent lawmakers into a summer overtime session, leaving unanswered questions about whether an agreement can be reached to ensure elementary schools open on time this fall, universities can avoid further cuts and the poor can get social services.

While the budget went unresolved, lawmakers did approve a plan to crack down on gun offenders sought by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sent the governor a long-in-the-making bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, voted to allow the state to sell the Thompson Center and rewrote how Illinois doles out money for schools. They also found time to designate corn as the state grain. (It's already the official state vegetable.)

The blame game quickly commenced. House Speaker Michael Madigan said Democrats will continue to work throughout June to "close the Rauner budget deficit." House Democrats want to work "cooperatively" with Rauner, Madigan said, but many "just don't have a high level confidence in how the governor has conducted himself."

Rauner had vowed to veto a Democratic budget that included an income tax hike and sales tax expansion, but he nonetheless classified the House's inaction on a spending plan as a "complete dereliction of duty by the majority in the General Assembly."

"Please, members of the General Assembly in the majority, do not travel around the state holding sham hearings about a balanced budget," Rauner said. "Don't go through a process of just trying to create phony headlines around the state."

Madigan's decision not to hold budget votes Wednesday held some political benefits as he tries to protect a Democratic majority that's kept him in power for all but two of the last 34 years.

Not only was Madigan able to sidestep the immediate pressure from some of his House Democrats to vote for a tax increase, but going into overtime also pushes GOP lawmakers to join in a solution or split the blame for the continued stalemate. That's because starting Thursday, passing a budget will require at least some Republican votes to reach the three-fifths benchmark now required.

The sides remain deeply entrenched, though, so Democrats and Republicans could be heading toward a repeat of last year, when they agreed to a stopgap budget to keep schools open and punted on a full-year plan.

A session that started in January played out against the backdrop of the 2018 election. Rauner, who's seeking re-election next year, has failed to get Democrats to agree to his economic agenda he says is needed to spur growth in Illinois. In recent months, the governor has highlighted the idea of freezing property taxes after previously pressing for changes to collective bargaining, term limits on lawmakers and an overhaul of the state's workers compensation system.

Democrats have long objected to Rauner's effort to tie those issues to the budget-making process, and point to Rauner's shifting agenda as proof that he's unwilling to cut a deal.

This month, Madigan tried a new approach, leading House approval of Democratic versions of the bills on Rauner's wish list. Among them: workers comp changes, property tax credits for veterans and seniors, streamlining how the state buys goods and services, the Thompson Center sale authorization, and making it easier for local governments to consolidate.

Rauner's office repeatedly has dismissed Madigan's efforts as phony, saying they don't go far enough to cut costs for taxpayers and spur business growth.

Senate Democrats might not have seen eye-to-eye with their House counterparts on a budget approach, but they agreed that the Republican governor was never interested in negotiating a compromise.

"Every time they (Republicans) would say, 'We need more time, we need more time, we need more time,' we kept pointing to the fact that the clock was running out, they're just running down the clock," said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who led a group of senators that came up with the tax hike portion of their budget package.

Hutchinson complained that negotiations were clouded by a notion, pushed in recent attack ads and robocalls by the Rauner-funded Illinois Republican Party, that Democrats were intent on raising taxes.

While it might seem odd that a politician would claim credit for backing tax hikes, which tend to be unpopular with voters, some Senate Democrats embraced their status as the only ones who voted to raise taxes.

"I know it's easy to lump us all into the same group of 'ineffectual, we haven't gotten our jobs done' (lawmakers). Well, we in the Senate have done our jobs," said Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago. "We stood up, we passed a balanced budget. We now need everyone to step up and do their jobs and do this for the state of Illinois."

But once the Senate bill reached the House, it hit a dead end. House Democrats spent the last week privately debating the measure. One group declared it was time to act to end the impasse, saying Rauner would attack them whether they voted to raise taxes or did nothing. Some were uncomfortable voting for a tax hike as part of a budget plan that also called for deep cuts.

The contingent that ultimately prevailed was those unwilling to go on the record as voting in favor of taxes that Rauner would veto, saying it didn't make sense to open themselves to criticism over a proposal that would never become law.

"To some, the question is what's going to hurt them more? Voting for a tax increase or not voting for a budget? But at this point either one doesn't make a difference because neither one is going to get signed by this governor," said Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates.

After the House adjourned, Rauner's campaign sent out a fundraising appeal signed by the Republican governor using familiar themes in bashing Madigan. Rauner said Democrats "are willing to push our state further into debt and destruction just to continue the corrupt, self-serving agendas of Speaker Madigan and the Chicago machine."

Rauner said he sent out the email "to make something explicitly clear to our supporters and our opponents: Team Rauner will never give up on this fight for reform."

In the end, Illinois will again be without a budget plan in place, extending the fight that has consumed state politics for the last two years. Some lawmakers were shell shocked that despite the months of back and forth, they are essentially no closer to a deal than when the impasse began.

"The budget crisis has gotten worse, right, we've got universities that are in significantly worse shape, dipping into their reserves. You've got school districts concerned about opening. You've got social service agencies dying on the vine," said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago. "But in terms of the political posturing ... here we are in the same place we were 700 days ago with no end in sight."

Meanwhile, lawmakers also sent the governor bills that would:

--Make voter registration automatic for Illinois residents seeking a new or renewed driver's license or state ID, unless they choose to opt out.

--Prohibit state law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal civil immigration laws, a measure aimed at fostering trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement under President Donald Trump.

--Prevent people accused of murder from using the so-called "gay panic defense," in which those accused of murder contend they acted out of passion after learning a victim was gay as way to reduce possible punishment.

--Expand automatic expungement for juvenile records. It also would seal juvenile records from the public that haven't been expunged unless "their use is needed for good cause." Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the bill acknowledges that teenagers make mistakes and ensures those decisions don't impact the rest of their lives.

Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson contributed

(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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