Progress Illinois: No Budget Agreement In Sight As Lawmakers Gear Up For The New Legislative Session (UPDATED)

Ellyn Fortino

January 11th, 2016

The state's 2016 legislative session begins this week amid the ongoing Illinois budget impasse, but House lawmakers are not due back to Springfield for another two weeks.

House members, who were initially set to reconvene this Wednesday, will return to Springfield on January 27, the day of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's State of the State address. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) pushed back his chamber's start date because the "workload was not there," according to his spokesman.

The Senate, however, returns Wednesday and has scheduled an Executive Appointments committee meeting that afternoon.

"That can't be a good sign for progress on solving the impasse," John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said of the House session's cancellation. "There's all kinds of negative impacts of the state not having a budget, and the longer this goes, the worse those impacts get. And so putting it off is just going to prolong the misery, it seems to me."

House lawmakers are sounding off on the schedule change, with state Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez (R-Springfield) saying she was "extremely disappointed in Speaker Madigan's decision to cancel" this week's session.

"Certainly not a good way to start off the new year by making the taxpayers wait even longer for the House to get back to work at the Capitol," she said in a statement over the weekend. "I believe I share the same sentiment with many of my colleagues that it's time to reach an agreement on a state budget, and the only way that can happen is when we come to work in Springfield."

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) noted that the legislature has been in a special overtime session since June in an effort to reach a budget agreement, and "we're still in an impasse."

"I look forward to getting started on the new legislative year," Guzzardi said, "but this impasse is only going to end when the governor decides to stop holding working people hostage and get to the negotiating table."

Illinois has been without a budget since July 1, the start of the 2016 fiscal year.

Democrats, who have supermajorities in both chambers, passed a budget in May. But Rauner vetoed most of the budget -- including all higher education appropriations -- citing its nearly $4 billion shortfall.

Rauner is trying to win items on his pro-business, anti-union "turnaround agenda" through the budgeting process. The governor wants reforms such as workers' compensation changes, a property tax freeze and limits on collective bargaining before he considers new revenues.

Democrats, who argue that Rauner's reform items are non-budgetary, vehemently oppose the governor's proposals seeking to curb the power of unions. They want a budget that includes a combination of cuts and new revenue.

Most state services and programs are being funded during the budget standoff by a combination of laws, court orders or consent decrees.  

On Monday, Rauner said he plans to release a proposal detailing how to halt court-mandated state spending during the budget impasse. Exactly how the state could get out of such required spending is uncertain, however.

Rauner is also reflecting on his first year in office. In an op-ed published over the weekend, the governor cited several actions taken by his administration over the past 12 months. Among them, Rauner says his administration wiped out a "$1.6 billion deficit inherited from the previous administration" and "ensured record state funding for schools."

As the stalemate continues into its seventh month, Rauner is scheduled to deliver his budget address for the 2017 fiscal year on February 17.

Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said he would be surprised if the stalemate ended before Rauner's 2017 budget address. 

"They could come out tomorrow with a deal, but there is no evidence, and nobody I talk to seems to think that would probably happen," he said. "Anything's possible. It's also possible (the stalemate) might go on until the end of Rauner's term, but I don't think that's gonna happen either. I think (the state's finances) will be so bad by that time ... Nobody wants to see that happen."

But, during remarks Monday at the City Club of Chicago, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said there is a possibility the state budget stalemate could continue for years if Democrats do not break from what she says is the status quo approach to state government.

"While I hope it doesn't happen, I think it's possible," she said of a multiple-year budget standoff.

Meanwhile, in a more optimistic look at the Illinois budget battle, state Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights) said, in an interview over the weekend with the Associated Press, any budget deal that is reached could include spending plans for both the current and 2017 fiscal years.

"I'm one of those folks who believes there can be a middle ground and that middle ground requires some compromise," Harris added. "And we have to get to a middle ground."

State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) said Rauner's turnaround agenda should be separate from the budgeting process.

Democrats and Republicans "should be able to differ on collective bargaining and it not be a tenet of whether or not we pass a budget," Davis said. "It's an issue, but it shouldn't be the linchpin to the state completely falling apart."

"Republicans," he added, "have to be willing to stand up and say, 'OK, governor, I get it. You're trying to get something done, but we need funding for the state universities.' ... Unless that's a bipartisan conversation, then you're ultimately not going to get anywhere."

Mooney said a high-profile crisis of some sort, such as a state college or university shutting down, could force an end to the budget stalemate.

That being said, neither Rauner nor the legislative leaders appear to know how or when the impasse will end, Mooney stressed.

"We're all hanging right now to wait and see what they do," he said. 

While the legislature has been focused on the budget, other pressing matters have been put on the back burner, including a plan to tackle the state's $111 billion pension crisis.

"It's been hard to see other issues languishing," said state Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago).

Williams is particularly concerned about the financial challenges facing the Chicago Public Schools. CPS' 2016 budget depends on $480 million in pension savings from state government. Some 5,000 teachers could be laid off early this year if the district does not get the financial help it needs, CPS officials have warned.

"I don't know what it will take to fix CPS' budget this year, but I know we do have to fix it, not just in the short term, but over the long haul," Williams said. "However, even more so than all the other issues, it requires all the decision makers to be on board with finding a solution."

For his part, Rauner reiterated last week that he'd be willing to help out CPS financially, but only if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel advocates in support of his turnaround agenda items.

Williams said she "was shocked to hear" from Rauner "that level of disregard for the hundreds of thousands of students that are going to be impacted if we don't address the CPS budget crisis."

But non-Chicago lawmakers may not be quick to act on relief for CPS either, Davis said.

"I think until members see CPS exhaust all of their avenues, nothing is going to happen until then," he said. "I think that would still be the case even if we had a budget."

Guzzardi, meanwhile, stressed that there is "one solution" to the state's current budget problem.

"The state needs more revenue to pay its bills," Guzzardi said. "And the only question after that is who's gonna pay it?"

Guzzardi said he will be among the lawmakers putting pressure on leadership to ensure that "the answer to that question is the folks who can most afford to are going to be responsible for paying the vast majority of this."

Stay tuned.

UPDATE 1 (1/12/16): The American Civil Liberties Union released the following statement in response to Rauner's announced plans to seek a way out of paying state services as mandated by consent decrees. The organization represents plaintiffs in five cases with mandated consent decrees.

"Governor Rauner should know that adherence to terms of a consent decrees is not a political option to be debated in the media," the ACLU's statement reads. "These agreements exist because the State violated the law - often over decades - in ways that impose significant harms to our clients and others in Illinois. If he possesses a magic wand to fix the challenges faced by children in the child welfare system, youth being incarcerated or people with disabilities after years of neglect by the State, we hope the Governor uses the magic soon. The reality is that the way to make getting out of consent decrees a 'big part of his agenda is to bring the State's dysfunctional systems in compliance with the law by improving the way the State provides services and supports to people who depend on its help.

"We look forward to engaging in that work, rather than debating ideological rhetoric."