Despite budget approval, much is in limbo after session
Gov. JB Pritzker talks about the recently concluded legislative session during a news conference Sunday in office at the Capitol in Springifield. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)
Governor says Legislature ‘has chosen not to be involved’ in many of his executive decisions
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Lawmakers approved a state operating budget shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, but despite the passage of the document, nothing about the next fiscal year is black and white.
The state is depending on a broad package providing federal monetary aid to states passing through the U.S. Congress, or, failing that, borrowing up to $5 billion from the U.S. Federal Reserve at an interest rate of approximately 3.8 percent.
“Well there's no doubt that we're going to have to revisit the budget if the federal government doesn't come through,” Gov. JB Pritzker said when asked if the state had a plan for a revenue stream to pay back the borrowing. “I think all 50 states are going to have to be revisiting their budgets if the federal government doesn’t come through.”
Pritzker took questions in his office at the Capitol on Sunday morning, about nine hours after the General Assembly adjourned on just its fourth day of legislative session since March 5.
The $42.8 billion budget keeps spending roughly flat from a year ago despite revenue for next year decreasing by an unknown number of billions and the potential of even further economic devastation should COVID-19 see a resurgence in the fall that coincides with a virulent flu season.
“The budget the General Assembly has sent to my desk acknowledges that massive economic disruption leads to difficult decisions,” Pritzker said.
Democrats, upon the bill’s passage, said in times of economic crisis, government needs to continue to spend instead of balancing the budget on the backs of the less fortunate.
Pritzker echoed the argument Sunday.
“There was a strong look at, you know, what could be cut,” Pritzker said. “Remember, though, this was all in the frame of a vastly increased need by families, workers, individuals all across the state.”
Republicans, however, called the budget balanced only on “a wing and a prayer.”
In House debate Saturday, Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, the GOP’s chief budget negotiator in the House, said there were billions of dollars, including some from the federal CARES Act, to be spent at Pritzker’s discretion with only limited guidance included in the budget.
“The ability for an administration to engage in emergency rulemaking and have control of more than $7 billion of state funds, with only broad strokes, broad umbrellas of programs and allocations for those dollars, I think should give members of this body pause,” Demmer said.
Rep. Gregory Harris, D-Chicago, said during debate the fact that the Legislature passed a full budget instead of a lump sum appropriation showed that it was exercising more oversight than other states were doing for their governors.
But Demmer said the governor’s emergency rulemaking track record – that he sought authority to implement misdemeanor fines for businesses disobeying his stay-at-home order – shows he didn’t earn the public’s trust when it comes to rulemaking.
“This talk about earning the authority, nobody knew a pandemic was coming,” Pritzker said when asked about Republican objections Sunday. “There’s just no way that anybody had any clue that we would be in this situation that we’re in right now.”
He said he would “do anything, give anything” to go back to a pre-COVID-19 level of normalcy.
“But here we are,” he said. “So, I think that there is a recognition anyway that we're gonna have an unusual year here.”
Asked if he would be comfortable with the authority the Legislature has afforded him being wielded by his former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, Pritzker said, “no, that’s why I ran against him and beat him.”
“I'm going to try very hard to operate, as I have by the way, with transparency, letting everybody know what we're doing and also why we're doing it. And the biggest thing is listening to the science and the data.”
In regard to transparency, Pritzker said the way this year’s budget was negotiated was not ideal. The measure and everything else passed in the four-day session was negotiated by working groups of lawmakers without official avenues for public input.
“I will say that although the public wasn't able to come in to hearings that the Legislature had, their representatives from both sides of the aisle were in fact in the working groups, it wasn't a one-sided set of working groups, there were bipartisan groups working on these things.”
Sometimes those groups sought executive branch input, sometimes they didn’t, he said.
While Republicans went into the special session calling for a vote on the governor’s Restore Illinois five-phased business reopening plan and some sort of check on his executive authority and ability to continuously extend disaster proclamations, no such vote occurred.
The closest thing to oversight was passed in a broad-ranging COVID-19 response bill that created a 14-member commission of eight Democrats and six Republicans that would work with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to discuss the reopening plan.
The commission would be scheduled to release its first report on the reopening plan on July 1, at which time the state could already be entering the fourth phase of the plan.
Republicans called the commission “window dressing.”
“Well, the Legislature has chosen not to be involved in many of the decisions that needed to be made by the executive branch,” Pritzker said when asked about the commission. “And I think, you know, when you think about it – That's why you have an executive branch in an emergency, I can act quickly. The executive branch can act quickly.”
While he said the General Assembly could not have met quickly enough to have input on his decisions early in the emergency effort, Pritzker said he was hoping the General Assembly would have gathered “much earlier” than last week.
On one particular measure, he said he believed the Legislature fell short. He had asked lawmakers to approve a measure allowing for monetary fines of businesses defying his stay-at-home order.
“I am very disappointed, I think it was a complete abdication of responsibility on the part of the Legislature,” he said, noting the director of the Illinois State Police asked for a measure providing such authority.
“None of us want to exercise the ability to take away someone’s license that’s been given to them by the state to do business. Nobody wants to shut down a business. What we were looking for was a way to issue a citation,” he said.
He said the state would have to “look at other mechanisms” for such enforcement, but he did not say what they are.
The governor said he is also looking at ways to implement the next phases of the plan and is considering issuing a fourth consecutive 30-day disaster proclamation.
“We want to make sure we can implement the Restore Illinois plan, and that we’re taking care that the health and safety of the people of Illinois is paramount, so we’re looking at it,” he said.
The governor also announced the release of broad guidance for industries reopening under phase 3 of his plan. That is viewable here: https://www2.illinois.gov/dceo/pages/restoreILP3.aspx.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.