Our View: Illinois budget process change was promised but not delivered

Lawmakers had little time to review $42.3-billion spending plan before they had to vote on it

Illinois lawmakers Tuesday passed a $42.3-billion state budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The deal included covering state pension obligations and paying down the state’s debt. Those are positive movements given the problems the state has had on both issues in recent years.

But lawmakers had been working on the budget since Gov. JB Pritzker delivered his proposal in February. The budget was passed on mostly partisan lines. There’s nothing new there and those in power get to choose how to spend the money. Another constant was the timing of the budget. Despite having four months to work on it, lawmakers didn’t get the final draft until hours before they were to vote on it. That left little or no time for lawmakers to ask questions, get answers or make changes.

For example, Rep. Tom Demmer, of Dixon, the Republican caucus’ chief budget negotiator, asked as the budget vote neared how $1 billion in capital projects had been selected. Republicans had complained that the infrastructure spending was directed only by Democrats.

“Through the normal process by which all capital costs of projects are chosen,” House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, explained. “Members make requests and departments make requests, and they are fulfilled within an order depending on the category.”

Demmer then asked whether any of the requests had come from Republican lawmakers and Harris replied that he didn’t know of any, according to Capitol News Illinois.

“We have a billion dollars of new capital projects that have been available, but it appears that it was only known that those projects were available or eligible for requests from Senate Democratic and House Democratic caucuses,” Demmer said.

If given a choice, that’s not how things should work. And does that mean only projects in Democratic districts get done?

It sounds like nothing has changed since former House Speaker Mike Madigan retired. It’s also not how current House Speaker Chris Welch said he would be running things. In January, when he took the post, Welch said: “Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats and Republicans,” Welch said. “I want to talk about us as being united. We are going to work together to be united.”

Overall, and despite the partisan vote, the budget was one of the better ones in recent years. That’s because of increased tax collections this year as well as passage of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which will provide about $8.1 billion that the state can spend over the next four fiscal years, CNI reported.

The budget bill passed the House minutes before midnight on Monday, 72-24. But the Senate didn’t vote until early Tuesday morning, forcing a constitutional requirement that it pass by at least a three-fifths majority, or 36 votes. It passed the Senate with 37 votes.

Welch promised transparency, but that’s not what happened with his first budget vote. Lawmakers had little time to ask questions, let alone make changes to the budget. We hope true change is in the offing.