The Illinois General Assembly that launched the careers of such political giants as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas and Barack Obama and the governor’s office once occupied by Adlai Stevenson II have set a record in futility in failing to agree on an annual spending plan for more than two years, the longest fiscal drought of any state since at least the Great Depression.
The Democratic-led Legislature and first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner have stared each other down since 2015. They have until 12:01 a.m. Thursday before striking out again and facing the possibility of entering a third consecutive year with no spending blueprint.
House Democrats said they’re in communication with Senate Democrats on a revenue bill that includes an income tax hike. They are reviewing “minor changes,” including potential changes to the service taxes that were included in the initial bill. House Democrats must still be briefed on those changes to gauge support.
Even if a last-minute agreement among Democrats could be reached, the Republican governor is unlikely to sign off on a tax hike. Those conflicts set the stage for Illinois’ historic budget stalemate to continue into the summer, leaving schools, universities and social service providers that depend on state money without many answers, just like last year.
“I do believe that we will be back at some point in the month of June,” said House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. “If we can reach a fair, balanced budget, I will do everything I can to provide votes from my caucus … one that’s negotiated on both sides, not just negotiated between the Democrats in the Senate and Democrats in the House.”
After May 31, the threshold to pass most budget legislation jumps. It would take 71 votes to approve a spending plan in the House, but there are just 67 Democrats, meaning any agreement would need some Republicans. That could have the dual effect of insulating Democrats from taking the blame alone for any potential tax hikes, while spreading the responsibility for continued dysfunction across both parties. The next pressure point for an agreement would be July 1, the start of the new budget year. And school districts likely will amplify their concerns as a new school year approaches.
But Durkin said he doesn’t believe Democrats will be as willing to find common ground this time around, saying he believes the goal is about muddying Rauner as he seeks re-election.
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Rep. Will Davis, from Homewood, is sponsoring the House version of a tax plan approved last week in the Senate. He says he doesn’t think his fellow Democrats should vote on taxes that don’t have enough support to pass.
“I think that walks us backwards, and possibly gives the governor a lot of rhetoric to say about Democrats not being able to pass their own revenue package,” he says.
Some Democrats say it’ll be better to wait until June, when the constitution requires more votes to pass a spending plan. That, they say, could force both parties to come to terms.
State Representative Lou Lang, from Skokie, says even if Democrats do not pass a spending plan in May, it doesn’t mean they’re abdicating their responsibility.
“We have worked tirelessly for the last two-and-a-half years under Gov. Bruce Rauner to get a budget,” Lang says. “And we can’t do it on our own.”