Eye On Illinois: Will budget negotiations go down to the wire again?

It’s Tuesday, May 11. Three weeks from today will be Tuesday, June 1.

In Illinois, the date is significant because the General Assembly is required to adopt a budget for the next fiscal year by the end of May 31. And if past years are any indication, there’s a high likelihood lawmakers will use every last minute up to — and perhaps past — the deadline to complete their work.

Yes, May 31 is Memorial Day this year, but we need only look back 12 months to see the last time legislators burned the midnight oil on a holiday weekend in Springfield.

Last May, with normal session hours drastically reduced during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the General Assembly packed almost all its work a few days near the end of May. With three days scheduled, meetings actually stretched into a fifth day as Democrats adopted a $42.8 billion spending plan with little public discussion.

Other work got done in those wee hours, but many important issues went unaddressed. Some such topics remain unresolved, such as meaningful reform to government ethics and lobbying laws, changing the property tax structure and addressing the public pension crisis, although voters are quite used to seeing those cans kicked down the road.

“But COVID!” is a feeble retort, because this approach of frittering away most of the spring session is standard Statehouse procedure. Aside from the years where the state simply didn’t enact a budget, there are dozens of instances of late-night, late-May votes on bills that control billions of taxpayer dollars or lasting structural changes.

This process not only shuts out the public, but historically has cut out all but the most powerful lawmakers, who hash out details behind closed doors, then ask their colleagues to cast momentous votes without a fair chance to actually read the proposals or consider how it might affect their constituents.

Gov. JB Pritzker delivered his budget address 12 weeks ago. There has been discussion since, but major issues remain to be addressed, chief among them Pritzker’s plan to bring in $932 million by closing what he calls corporate loopholes. His opponents argue those Prtizker condoned those loopholes during 2019 budget negotiations and infrastructure negotiations, but back then they were called incentives.

Obviously rushing to approve a budget in February would be imprudent. Back then Pritzker called for keeping education funding flat — arguably a reduction, given a recent plan to increase allocations annually — now after reviewing recent revenue projections he thinks we can afford the promised $350 million extra. But neither is the public served by leaving the important details until nearly the last minute.

Pay close attention the next three weeks. Follow the votes — and the money.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.