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Voters register objections to parts of budget deal

Published: Sunday, March 19, 2017 10:49 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Politicians gather Jan. 14, 2015, in the Senate chambers at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. The Illinois Senate's "grand bargain" budget compromise has had a rough go. And that doesn't count taxpayer response. Voters have objected to the sprawling proposal in state Capitol rallies, letters and witness testimony.

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Senate’s “grand bargain” budget compromise has had a rough go, with false starts, misfires, a lukewarm Republican reception and Democrats abruptly pulling the plug last month when GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner weighed in against it. And that doesn’t count taxpayers’ reaction.

The 12 disparate measures comprising the grand bargain were cobbled together in an attempt to recharge stalled negotiations over a two-year budget stalemate that has fueled a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. An Associated Press analysis of Senate records shows nearly 4,700 witnesses wanting a say in at least one of the individual measures. Less than a fifth recorded support.

“If gambling could solve the budget crisis, it would have done so by now,” said Kathy Gilroy, an independent insurance agent and anti-gambling activist from Villa Park, who filed her objection electronically. “Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”

It’s that type of opposition that hamstrings hopes of a deal, particularly one so widespread and complex. Even if lawmakers could agree, a “yes” vote could push voters to eject them at the next election. That’s especially true when the critics are well-funded groups with clout, such as labor unions, business interests or teachers.

Shown the numbers, Sen. Heather Steans, an appropriations committee chairwoman at the heart of grand bargain machinations, suggested witnesses were focusing on the trees at the forest’s expense. She has found voters’ concerns are mollified when shown the big picture.

“You can rile people up on a particular element, but once they understand the whole package, they tend to be supportive,” said Steans, a Chicago Democrat.

The sheer volume of witnesses reacting to committee hearings earlier this year is attributable to electronic filing, introduced about five years ago. It makes it easier for taxpayers to have their say and for groups to organize campaigns.

That’s apparent from reaction to the local property tax freeze Rauner is demanding. That proposal drew more than 1,400 opponents to just six in favor. But more than 600 indicated they were affiliated with public schools, and nearly 100 specifically identified their connection to physical education, the AP’s review found. The legislation allows schools to forgo P.E. for up to six years with legislative permission.

Former Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican who served from 1985 to 2011, said parochial concerns melt when voters recognize greater need. He once pushed an income tax increase to shift the burden of public-school funding – an issue yet unresolved and part of the grand bargain – which the House approved with only seven Republican votes before a GOP-controlled Senate buried it. Black was told he wouldn’t be back, but he said voters will swallow tough medicine in times of crisis – such as now.

“Most people are saying, ‘Just do something,’ ” Black said.

Despite the budget deficit the state faces, legislation that would raise taxes is hotly contested. But the measure that now would hike the income tax rate originally proposed a tax on sugary drinks, which died amid a critical cacophony from giant cola-makers, movie theater chains, quick-trip stores and more. But on a grand bargain measure to pay state bills for the first half of 2017 – including domestic violence shelters, zeroed out since last summer – 98 percent of witnesses were in favor.

Witnesses converging on the Capitol for major issues flood lawmakers’ offices with rancorous pledges to vote them out, said Patrick Welch, a Democratic senator from Peru from 1983 to 2003.

But even if your neighbors are opposed, some crises require a gut check. That’s easier said than done, said Richard Winkel, director of public leadership for the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

“You can’t ‘vote your district,’ ” said the Champaign Republican, who served in the House and Senate from 1995 to 2007. “You have to vote the state.”

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