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June primary election hovers over Illinois legislative session as lawmakers try to finish budget and other work by April

The Illinois Capitol in Springfield in November. State lawmakers are on a fast-track schedule in an election-year session as they attempt to pass a budget and complete other tasks against an early April adjournment date.
The Illinois Capitol in Springfield in November. State lawmakers are on a fast-track schedule in an election-year session as they attempt to pass a budget and complete other tasks against an early April adjournment date. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

With elections looming and another coronavirus surge underway, Illinois lawmakers are due to return to Springfield Wednesday with the goal of crafting next year’s state budget and wrapping up much of their other work for the year by early April — nearly two months ahead of the usual schedule.

Whether the Democratic-controlled legislature will be able to meet that deadline remains to be seen, as the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases forced the General Assembly to cancel the other session days during the first week of the new year and likely the entire second week. But with primaries set for June 28 and all 177 seats in the Illinois House and Senate up for election in 2022, lawmakers will be eager to avoid controversial issues and get back home to campaign.

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But even as Democrats seek to strengthen their hold on the legislature and keep Gov. J.B. Pritzker in office for a second term, they’ll also be looking to strengthen their case to voters that they’ve delivered on important issues, from stabilizing state finances to keeping the public safe during a pandemic.

Republicans will be looking to emphasize issues such as rising crime and sky-high property taxes to convince voters — particularly in the suburbs — that they should give them a greater voice in Springfield. Cutting into the Democrats’ dominance will be no easy task, however, with a new district map drawn by Democrats designed to preserve the majority party’s power.

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If lawmakers finish by April 8 as scheduled, it would be the earliest the General Assembly has adjourned since the 1970 state constitution took effect. The earliest conclusions since then have been April 15 in 2000 and May 4 in 2006 — both also election years like 2022.

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, who along with Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park controls the legislative calendar, says the schedule for the upcoming spring session is not shortened but condensed. Lawmakers were originally slated to be at the Capitol for roughly the same number of days as in a typical year, but it’s unclear if that will happen with the big surge in COVID-19 cases.

And as always, the foremost task before lawmakers will be approving a state spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

“We want to continue down that path of financial stability, and so the budget is going to be a real top priority for us as we head back,” Welch said.

Here’s a look at the tasks facing lawmakers in Springfield in 2022.

Balancing the budget

Despite coronavirus-induced economic uncertainty and voters’ resounding rejection of Pritzker’s graduated-rate income tax proposal in 2020, the state’s finances have seen modest improvement in the three years since the Democratic governor took office.

The state got its first credit rating upgrades in decades in 2021, and its backlog of unpaid bills has shrunk significantly, to the point where vendors are typically paid within a normal 30-day cycle.

What’s more, the state’s massive unfunded pension liability decreased, if only by a tiny amount, for just the second time in a decade, dropping to $139.9 billion the fiscal year that ended June 30 from $141 billion the previous year. The decrease was due largely to annual investment returns of more than 20% across the state’s five retirement systems, far above expectations.

During a recent downtown Chicago news conference to discuss the state’s latest efforts to combat COVID-19, Pritzker said he was focused on one goal for the upcoming session.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago on Dec. 27, 2021.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago on Dec. 27, 2021. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

“I have one priority every session that is the No. 1 priority, and that’s balancing our budget, making sure that we’re doing the right thing to put our state on firm fiscal footing, to continue to get credit upgrades as we have, and to make sure that we’re providing the services that people need,” he told reporters at the James R. Thompson Center.

But with the omicron variant driving a fifth surge of the pandemic in Illinois and inflation driving up prices, maintaining progress on the financial front figures to be a major challenge.

One significant problem: The state’s $4.5 billion debt to the federal unemployment insurance trust fund, which is racking up interest at a rate of 2.27%. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza has asked the U.S. Treasury Department to pause the interest, but there’s no guarantee that will happen.

Another question facing lawmakers is how to spend the roughly $3.6 billion the state has left from the $8.1 billion it received from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package.

With three years remaining to budget the funds, “we will not spend it all in 2022,” Welch said.

“What’s going on right now in our world today is a stark reminder that the pandemic is not behind us,” he said. “And as policymakers, we have to have that top of mind as we head into another budget season.”

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks to reporters on Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks to reporters on Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield. (Brian Casssella/Chicago Tribune)

Acknowledging some improvement in the state’s finances, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said Pritzker and the Democrats should not take the influx of federal funds for granted.

“At some point that money is going to run out,” Durkin said. “So, I would hope that the governor would not increase spending nor the Democrats increase spending, because at some point we’re going to run out of this extra money that’s sitting in the wallet.”

Durkin said he would like to see some of the relief money used toward paying the deficit in the unemployment trust fund.

“Our businesses are the ones who’ve suffered the most. Small, large, but mainly the small guys,” he said. “My gosh, I can’t believe that we haven’t gone far enough to say that, ‘You know what, we’re going to start dedicating money from (the federal government) to start to reduce our reliability in the (unemployment) trust fund.’”

Harmon said the unemployment fund was “strained beyond imagination by the pandemic,” but remedying that with money from Washington should be part of a well-thought-out plan.

Taking on high property taxes

High property taxes, driven largely by the relatively low level of state funding for public schools, continues to be one of the most vexing problems for state lawmakers.

After using the possibility of easing the tax burden on homeowners as a selling point in his failed pitch for the graduated income tax, Pritzker hasn’t made the issue a top legislative priority. A legislative task force that was supposed to study the issue and make recommendations devolved into partisan squabbling in late 2019 and never finished its work.

“Property taxes remain a priority for voters, so I think as we approach the spring session, there’s probably some ideas that are floating around (about what) we can do to provide more equity in the property tax system,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside, chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee. “Until we get down (to Springfield) and (I) talk to my colleagues, it’s hard to say exactly what those are. But property taxes remain a top priority. ”

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Different parts of the state face different challenges, from assessment issues in Lake County and the Loop to declining property values and a declining industrial base elsewhere, Zalewski said.

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“All those things add up to sort of people wanting to sort of revisit a lot of what makes up the property tax code,” he said. “We’re open-minded. And we’ll start having hearings in January and February to see what we can do to be responsive.”

Durkin alluded to news that he thinks should be a wake-up call to the legislature: The village of Niles on Dec. 14 imposed an 88% property tax levy for next year, a move that one Niles official called a “difficult” but necessary action to more adequately fund police and fire pensions, village road construction and deferred capital projects.

“If there is a time for us to really address property taxes, we saw it right now,” Durkin said. “It’s a difficult system, but I would hope that we’ve seen enough examples over the past two years where we have to make a decision on how we need to reform the property tax system in Cook County, at least, if not the state of Illinois.”

Addressing crime

Even as Pritzker has made his pandemic response central to his campaign, he touched on the seriousness of rising crime rates when he signed an executive order in November declaring gun violence a public health crisis. The order directs $250 million over the next three years to implement a new data-driven plan to “reimagine public safety” as part of a holistic community-based violence prevention initiative.

Public safety has become a central theme for Republicans, who are trying to brand Democrats as failures in addressing that issue in the upcoming election. GOP lawmakers continue to criticize sweeping criminal justice reform legislation signed by Pritzker in early 2021 that allows, among other things, citizens to file anonymous complaints against cops and will eventually put an end to cash bail. Republicans say those provisions weaken law enforcement and embolden criminals.

Durkin and other Republicans have pushed proposals that include funding to hire additional police officers, stiffer penalties for gun crimes and tougher punishments for those who commit organized retail theft offenses such as smash-and-grab burglaries.

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin appears Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield.
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin appears Jan. 13, 2021, at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Durkin acknowledged he isn’t confident any of these measures will see the light of day in the upcoming legislative session.

“The Democrats will look at that as some type of admission that they’ve done the wrong thing, and then they have compromised public safety,” Durkin said. “They have kept us out of the loop over the past two years. I’m not expecting anything from them at all, for them to work with us and give us any opportunity to negotiate with them.”

Senate GOP leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods expressed similar frustrations with his caucus’s superminority role, noting that members introduced several anti-crime proposals in the fall that were ignored by Democrats.

“At the end of the day, the biggest question is whether we’re going to have robust debate in an election year on key issues that the public seems concerned about,” McConchie said.

Harmon said one of the session’s tasks could be ensuring that bills passed during the previous session and signed into law are being executed properly. This could include elements of the criminal justice legislation that are either already in effect or are scheduled to go into effect at a future date, such as the end of cash bail.

He defended the sweeping legislation for addressing the “shortcomings of the criminal justice system” in being unfair to people based on “who they were and where they were from.”

“I don’t know anybody in the General Assembly who doesn’t think violent criminals … shouldn’t be held to account for their actions,” said Harmon.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, holds up Senate Bill 2048, a comprehensive energy proposal, to note how much work was done on the bill as he gives his closing remarks on the floor of the Senate at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield on Sept. 13, 2021.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, holds up Senate Bill 2048, a comprehensive energy proposal, to note how much work was done on the bill as he gives his closing remarks on the floor of the Senate at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield on Sept. 13, 2021. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register/AP)

If Republicans are looking to place blame for rising crime, Welch said, they should consider the damage that was done to social services during the legislature’s long-running budget standoff during the tenure of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“Let’s remind people that Bruce Rauner and Jim Durkin and Republicans in this state tore apart our safety net programs and our infrastructure that was fighting crime across the state, and they remained silent for 736 days during a budget impasse, and we are still paying the price today,” he said.

Democrats have put forward an agenda that “includes making sure that our police are properly funded, equipped and trained to properly respond and prevent violence without discriminating against communities” as well as “a long-term, comprehensive, well-funded plan to address the root causes of violence,” Welch said.

Selecting a legislative watchdog

Perhaps the most immediate concern facing lawmakers is choosing a new person to serve as the legislature’s top watchdog.

Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope announced her resignation in the summer in response to an overhaul of state government ethics laws that she said “demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.” She was supposed to leave office Dec. 15, but agreed to extend her tenure through Jan. 6 after Democrats and Republicans on the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Commission deadlocked on the selection of a new inspector general.

Republicans on the panel are backing Joseph Hartzler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and was recommended by a search committee. Democrats favor David Risley, also a former federal prosecutor, who was director of public safety policy for Rauner, according to a letter to the four top legislative leaders from GOP Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy, who chairs the ethics commission. Risley was not recommended by the search committee.

If no replacement is named by Thursday, it wouldn’t be the first time the legislature has gone without a watchdog.

After the state’s first legislative inspector general resigned in 2014, the position went unfilled until the vacancy was thrust into the spotlight when a victims’ rights advocate testified at a legislative hearing in October 2017 that her complaint alleging she’d been sexually harassed by a state senator went unanswered for more than a year.

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The blowback led to the temporary appointment of former federal prosecutor Julie Porter, who held the position until Pope, a former state prosecutor and appellate judge, took over in March 2019.

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