The Illinois General Assembly met for four days last week in a coronavirus-shortened session to vote on several bills, including a budget for the next fiscal year and one that greatly expanded the state’s vote by mail program.
Both measures passed the Senate and House almost entirely along party lines, with Democrats approving of the measures and Republicans voting against them.
The budget calls for $42.8 billion in revenue spending, which is up $1.6 billion from last year. It is also an increase from the $42.1 billion budget Gov. JB Pritzker delivered earlier this year.
Much of that spending is tentative, however, as the budget relies on up to $5 billion the state plans to borrow from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility program.
That program allows the Federal Reserve to purchase short-term debt from states to help them make up for loss of revenue due to the pandemic.
The budget also authorizes another $1.5 billion in borrowing between the general revenue fund and other state funds to maintain cash flow.
Most spending, including for K-12 schools, is largely flat compared to last year’s budget.
Spending increases include $636 million for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Grant Program that aims to help small businesses suffering from the pandemic and up to $200 million to the Illinois Department of Public Health for contact tracing and testing.
Additionally, the Department of Aging is slated to get $58 million more to raise wages for some of its workers to $14 an hour, and the Department of Children and family Services will receive $170 million more to hire more people, raise rates for foster care providers and address caseload growth.
“The budget the General Assembly has sent to my desk recognizes that massive economic disruption leads to difficult decisions,” Pritzker said. “This budget begins to address the financial upheaval we are facing, but more hard choices about how to spend and save these dollars wisely remain to be made.”
The budget also specifies how the $3.3 billion the state expects to receive from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is to be spent.
Of that total, $416 million will go toward testing and services for local health departments. Pritzker also gets to decide how $1.8 billion of the money is spent within the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, though the funding comes with strings attached and can only be spent for specific purposes.
Similarly, the budget allows Pritzker to shift up to 8 percent of an appropriation to something else, which is up from 2 percent in previous years. The legislation also creates a legislative oversight committee to monitor executive spending.
The combination of increased spending, relying on uncertain federal dollars and giving Pritzker more control seemed to be the sticking points for most Republicans.
“Responding to a more than $6 billion shortfall by increasing discretionary spending and borrowing billions of dollars is not responsible government,” said state Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo), who voted against the budget. “Instead, it is proof that Gov. Pritzker and his enablers in the Illinois General Assembly are either unable or unwilling to make the difficult choices commensurate with true leadership. Not only does this disastrous budget not address any of Illinois’ long-term problems, it will make them far worse.”
State Rep. Nathan Reitz (D-Steeleville) voted for the budget.
“My priority is a safe return to regular operations for local business and getting Illinoisans back to work while our state continues to combat this disease,” Reitz said. “That starts with a budget that is realistic about the challenges we face and the needs of our working families and senior citizens. The budget I passed ensures we have the flexibility to help families dealing with the economic effects of this crisis, while also establishing stricter oversight of state spending, so we know the administration is not spending money we don’t have.
“I also worked across the aisle to pass a worker safety package backed by business and labor that will protect our first responders, support those affected by COVID-19 on the job, and help businesses reopen with confidence.”
Vote by mail
The other major legislation approved by the Legislature expands Illinois’ vote-by-mail program.
The state will now automatically send a vote-by-mail ballot to anyone who has voted in the past two years and declare Nov. 3, 2020 a state holiday.
The law, which Pritzker is expected to sign, also requires that a panel of three election judges would need to unanimously agree to reject a mailed-in ballot because of signature irregularities. A majority of those judges would need to agree to reject a ballot for other reasons like the envelope being opened when delivered.
Democrats said the measure promotes people voting safely during the pandemic, though in-person voting will still be an option.
“Nobody knows what November will look like, but we must ensure COVID-19 does not keep anyone from participating in the upcoming election,” Reitz said of his yes vote. “Expanding ‘vote-by -mail’ options creates the opportunity for local election officers to help people vote through additional options in a safe and secure way.”
Republicans said the they were concerned about costs associated with the expansion and increased opportunities for voter fraud.
“We already have one of the most advanced mail voting systems in the country,” Schimpf said of why he voted against the bill. “What we did today was place a huge burden on our local election officials and give bad actors more opportunities to diminish our election integrity.”
Monroe County Clerk Jonathan McLean, a Republican, also spoke out against the bill.
“As the election authority for Monroe County, I am very concerned about this bill to expand vote-by-mail,” McLean posted on Facebook. “The integrity of our election process is at risk. This program will cost tens of millions of dollars to implement and it has no built-in protections against fraud.”