SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – A property tax freeze critical to ending Illinois’ historic budget jam failed in the House Wednesday and the Republican governor who is demanding the freeze threatened to keep lawmakers in session over the July 4 holiday unless there is an agreement on a spending plan by the end of Friday.
House Democrats skeptical of capping growth of property-tax revenue the main source of funding for schools swallowed hard and offered up a four-year statewide freeze, a key requirement of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner before he will agree to an annual budget. Illinois has gone without a budget since 2015, the longest of any state since at least the Great Depression.
“We’ve gone further than I personally would have liked to have gone in order to respond to the governor’s demands,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the freeze, who urged a favorable vote to end “the continuing lack of funding for important programs, school children, vulnerable elderly, victims of domestic violence; let’s try to make sure he understands we’re ready to get the job done.”
But on a 59-46 vote, far short of the three-fifths majority necessary for the measure to take immediate effect, lawmakers’ efforts to avoid the ignominy of starting a third consecutive July 1 without a budget outline were thrown into doubt. Republicans oppose the Democrats’ freeze because it makes significant exceptions for Chicago, its school system and 17 other financially-strapped school districts, and for cities struggling to pay long-term debt and make contributions to police and fire pension accounts.
Less than an hour later, Rauner, who has called legislators into special session for eight straight days, said failure to meet the Saturday deadline would force more of the same.
“We will have no choice but to keep them in session until they get the job done,” Rauner’s statement said.
With an annual deficit of $6.2 billion and a $14.6 billion heap of past-due bills, bond rating houses threatened to take the extraordinary step of labeling Illinois the first state with a creditworthiness of “junk,” making it increasingly difficult and more expensive to borrow money.
Public universities faced a loss of national accreditation, tarnishing their attractiveness to high-quality staff and exacerbating financial struggles that have prompted tuition increases and halted expansion of programs. Multistate lottery games are halting tickets sales in Illinois because of the state’s inability to pay its share of the prize.
Democratic Senate President John Cullerton’s spokesman, John Patterson, issued a statement urging Rauner not to throw in the towel, saying, “People are counting on us.” Another Democrat, Comptroller Susana Mendoza, posted a 6 1/2-minute YouTube video painfully laying out the consequences of inaction, including a shortfall as early as August of $185 million to cover even basic core services propped up for two years by court orders.
“We have seen the state suffer through a series of disasters due to the budget impasse,” Mendoza said, “but without a comprehensive budget solution, it’s going to get much worse very quickly.”
Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders have locked horns for more than two years over the wide-ranging “turnaround agenda” the first-term Rauner brought into office, which he’s significantly whittled down to half-a-dozen issues, including the property-tax freeze. In addition to that failed vote, the House easily approved Democratic-written plans on three others. They passed an overhaul of state employee-pension programs to reduce a $130 billion gap in what’s obligated to cover retirement benefits for retired and current employees. They approved cost-cutting measures to the workers’ compensation system. And they voted to make it easier to consolidate or eliminate some of the 7,000 units of government in Illinois, the most of any state.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs branded Democratic moves on Wednesday as “political theater.” While the four leaders of the House and Senate met for a second straight day in Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s third-floor Capitol office, none emerged to speak to a media throng outside.
But that could signal progress and an unwillingness to publicly criticize one another. Rep. Tom Demmer, a Dixon Republican tasked with pension-fix negotiations, said the House votes on the tangential issues were “premature” and negotiations continue.
Still awaiting an airing out is the $36.5 billion House Democratic spending plan its authors said Tuesday is $800 million less than Rauner’s own proposal. Democrats say it relies on an income-tax hike to raise $5 billion and spending reductions of $2.4 billion, but they’ve not introduced tax-hike legislation.
Demmer noted that budget approval requires 71 House votes to take immediate effect. The chamber’s 67 Democrats need GOP help so he’s confident good-faith talks are forthcoming. New votes could be taken on the issues. One Democrat who opposed the property-tax freeze filed a motion for a new vote.
“If instead they’re interested more in the politics of it or the theater of it, they’ll go it alone,” Demmer said. “That’s not a successful strategy.”
(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)