SPRINGFIELD — Speaking at a business industry conference in April, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch joked that his title should be “listener of the House,” citing the 11 different caucuses among his 78 members.
“Most of my time is on caucus management,” he said. “I have an open-door policy and they take advantage of it.”
The difficulty in building consensus among the many competing interests among Democrats who control both the House and Senate was on clear display in the waning days of the spring legislative session, as the General Assembly blew a self-imposed adjournment date and once again went into overtime to pass a budget.
The session didn’t end until about 3 a.m. Saturday, shortly after the House voted 73-38 along party lines to approve a $50.6 billion spending plan that now goes to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
In presenting the plan, state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth of Peoria, who this year became the chief budget negotiator for the House Democrats, nodded to the challenges in getting all party members behind the budget. “It isn’t easy to come together when we have a diverse body, but it certainly becomes the strength that moves us forward,” she said.
Gordon-Booth also acknowledged during the early morning debate that not everyone would be completely satisfied with the final product, but argued that the spending plan seeks to ensure the state can keep its promises.
“The reality of this budget is that no one in here, no one in communities is going to get everything that they asked for because we simply don’t have the resources to do everything that everyone is asking,” Gordon-Booth said. “The things that we are engaging in we believe that we can sustain over time.”
The fits and starts that marked the end of the legislative session belied the huge gains Democrats made in November, when Pritzker consolidated his power within the party while Democrats retained their supermajority in the Senate and expanded it to a record high in the House.
It also pointed to growing pains under the leadership of Welch. The Democrat from Hillside in 2021 replaced longtime Speaker Michael Madigan, who lost his job after becoming ensnared in a wider ranging corruption investigation and now stands indicted and awaiting trial on racketeering charges.
Welch’s election to the speaker’s post promised a transformational and transparent House operation after years of Madigan’s tightfisted control over his members.
But the delay in approving a state budget showed Welch’s leadership remains in a transitional phase. Welch was first forced to push back a self-set adjournment deadline of May 19 because a budget deal could not be brokered, then had to hold off again after standing with Pritzker and Senate President Don Harmon on Wednesday to announce a budget deal had been reached, which quickly became clear was not the case.
Giving more power to racial and ethnic caucuses and their priorities while the state faces a contraction in tax revenues and confronting a progressive-moderate split, Welch had difficulty navigating the budget lines to try to preserve unity among his members. It didn’t help that Greg Harris, the former House point man on spending and a longtime architect of legislative budgets, had retired, stepping down in January after not seeking reelection.
Hours before the Senate passed the budget late Thursday in a 34-22 vote, House Democrats gathered privately in a committee room on the first floor of the State Capitol to discuss the budget and other bills they were preparing for floor action. Outside the room, state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates who’s been in the House since 2007, acknowledged that there were “a lot of new players involved that haven’t done this before.”
“Greg Harris was the one running the show for a long time,” said Crespo, a member of both the moderate and Latino caucuses in the House. “We have new people running the show. We have a lot of new members in the House. And because of that, you’re going to have to go through some growing pains. And we’ve been through some growing pains.”
A key point of contention during budget negotiations was how to manage a state-funded health care program for noncitizens who don’t qualify for traditional federal Medicaid. The state-funding program is geared toward immigrants who are in the country without legal permission or who have green cards but haven’t completed a five-year waiting period.
The program was created for people 65 and older in 2020 but has since been expanded to cover those 42 and older. Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to cover people 19 and older. Pritzker’s February spending plan pegged the cost of the program at $220 million. But subsequent projections pegged the cost at closer to $1.1 billion, according to the administration, though some Democratic lawmakers and advocates questioned that projection.
Democratic lawmakers refused to cut funding in other programs or enact the governor’s recommended cost controls, such as copays or income limitations, resulting in a deal that allocated about $550 million for the program while, according to the governor’s office, giving the administration “tools” to control costs. In effect, Pritzker agreed to assume any political liabilities that come with controlling future costs.
Shortly before the Senate adjourned early Friday for the final time this spring, the tension and emotional nature of the issue burst into the open when state Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat, slammed critics, including those in the GOP, who’ve questioned the funding for the health care program.
She talked about how her mother, before she died of cancer, was sick and needed to have surgery.
“My mother said, ‘Mija, I have you but what about everyone else here who doesn’t speak the language or doesn’t have the status that we have to be able to handle things, that doesn’t have the health insurance that we have to be able to cover the cost of this?’” Villanueva said.
“Don’t use my communities as political scapegoats and whatever games you’re trying to play as a political ploy, and that is for anybody that is continuing to try to insinuate that undocumented people deserve any less,” she said. “They pay taxes. And they … contribute to our economy.”
During the House debate early Saturday, Republicans voiced their perennial objections about being excluded from budget talks.
Rep. Norine Hammond of McComb, the House GOP’s chief budget negotiator, characterized the Democrats’ plan as “another partisan, one-sided budget” and suggested there was a lack of interest by the majority party to work with Republicans.
“This is not a balanced budget,” Hammond said. “The revenues that are needed for this budget, they are not my money, it is not your money, it is not Republican money, it is not Democratic money. This money belongs to the taxpayers of the state of Illinois and they deserve better.”
In the Senate, however, there was less public friction between Republicans and Democrats than in the past. Moments before the budget passed through the chamber, Republican leader John Curran acknowledged how the Democrats’ included his caucus in budget talks, something he described as “a step forward in our working relationships.”
But he indicated that the final product of the budget “does not reflect the entire state of Illinois.” He criticized the budget for ignoring the “overwhelming call for relief” from tax and utility costs that he believes are “crushing” families and small- and medium-sized businesses following the COVID-19 pandemic. And he said the budget is not friendly to big business, noting companies like Caterpillar and Boeing have relocated offices out of state.
“The budget presented here today undoubtedly represents a further expansion and growth of state government at a time when Illinois itself is contracted,” Curran said.
In addition to Curran and all 18 other Senate Republicans voting against the budget, so did three Democrats, Sens. Patrick Joyce of Reddick, Suzy Glowiak Hilton of Western Springs and Doris Turner of Springfield.
Confronted by reporters after the Senate adjournment early Friday morning, Turner and Glowiak Hilton, who represent districts with a lot of moderate Democratic and Republican voters, each indicated they were unhappy with the budget’s proposed 5.5% pay raises for rank-and-file lawmakers, which would bring their annual pay from $85,000 to $89,675.
Those raises would come after a separate raise given to lawmakers in January that boosted the annual salaries of rank-and-file lawmakers to $85,000 from $72,906, a nearly 17% increase.
On Thursday, state Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat and the Senate’s chief budget negotiator, insisted the Democrats are “not trying to hide anything or do anything nefarious” with the new raises, saying they’re merely part of a cost-of-living adjustment.
Harmon said on the Senate floor he was disappointed that Curran didn’t support the budget. “This is a budget that invests in our shared priorities. We are investing in schools in red districts and in blue districts. We’re investing in hospitals in red districts and blue districts, and health care workers across the state,” Harmon said.
Hours before the House took the floor on Friday, House Republican leader Tony McCombie criticized not only the costs of the immigrant health care program, but the absence of tax breaks on gas, groceries and school supplies that were in place during 2022′s reelection year for Pritzker, the pay raises for lawmakers and uncertainty over anticipated costs related to contract negotiations with the state’s largest public employee union.
“We cannot trust the majority party with more money when all they offer is so little in return to tangible benefits for Illinois families all around 102 counties that we represent,” McCombie, of Savanna, said during a news conference at the Capitol. “We do not want new spending. Now is not the time. We don’t know what is happening with the (anticipated) upcoming recession. We don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”
Aside from the contention over the funding for the immigrant health care program, there were also differences over whether to extend a $75 million tax credit program for private school scholarship donors, which was left out of the final budget package.
During the Senate floor debate, Curran lamented the children “whose lives have been forever changed by scholarships to schools” being excluded from the budget. Talking to reporters after the budget’s passage, Sims downplayed Curran’s remarks, and also appeared to leave the door open on the program, saying “we will have until the fall to take this up.”
In his remarks closing the session for the House, Welch confronted Republicans over their votes against the budget, and bet them that they’d soon be talking up the gains it provided for their districts.
“When you go home and brag about all the money going in your schools, your community colleges, your park districts, your universities that are in your districts,” Welch said, gesturing to the Republican side as he spoke. “The 7% increase to every university that’s in districts you represent that you voted ‘no’ against. You should be proud and tomorrow I guarantee you will be bragging about it.”
The Pritzker administration has highlighted elements of the budget that boost education, including an additional $100 million for Monetary Award Program grant funding.
Other areas of the budget highlighted by the governor’s office include an increase of $85 million to support homelessness prevention, affordable housing and other programs related to a vision of “ending homelessness in the state.” The budget proposal also includes an additional $200 million to the state’s underfunded pension plans on top of the $9.8 billion required under state law.
Pritzker’s staff also highlighted a $20 million investment in a new program to expand grocery access to urban neighborhoods and rural towns. The initiative comes after the governor suspended the state’s grocery tax for 12 months in the current budget that expires at the end of June.
The more-than-3,400-page budget that kicks in July 1 also includes $15 million for the state’s violent crime witness protection program, which is half of the $30 million that Pritzker proposed for the program in February. Also in the budget was a $30 million appropriation for a fund that distributes money to police departments for body cameras and squad car dashboard camera systems.
Another $15 million was also set aside for grants associated with a youth summer jobs program, geared toward especially benefiting young people in Chicago and other urban areas. And the budget includes a roughly $112 million increase in the share of state income tax revenue distributed to local governments, partially satisfying a request from some suburban mayors, as well as new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.
In response to another request from Johnson, the budget would provide $42.5 million to aid migrants arriving from the country’s southern border. The rejiggered plan that came out Thursday, however, would make that money available to counties and towns statewide rather than just Chicago and other parts of Cook County.
In the end, it may have been appropriate that one of the major budget implementation bills was shoehorned into legislation that began as an effort to make the soybean the “official state bean.” Illinois legislators wound up writing their own version of the old saw that people should never see how sausage and the law is made, replacing it with tofu.
Petrella and Pearson reported from Chicago.