SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Republican who arrived in town three years ago and fought established Democrats so hard the state was thrust into fiscal crisis, gave his blessing Thursday to a bipartisan budget plan that lawmakers OK'd and prepared to send his way.
The $38.5 billion spending plan, approved on lopsided bipartisan votes by a General Assembly accustomed to late-May fiscal clashes, won House approval 97-18 Thursday and heads to Rauner.
"We worked together to provide a budget to the people of Illinois that can be balanced with hard work and continued bipartisan effort to deliver on the promises it makes," Rauner said in a statement in which he promised quick action to enact the plan for the year that begins July 1.
The lopsided House vote, following a similarly overwhelming 56-2 tally in the Senate the previous night, represented a marked departure from the rancor that has enveloped the state Capitol the last three years, in which a bitter political feud between Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly left the two sides stalemated on a budget plan for more than two years, longer than any state in U.S. history since at least the Depression.
But it also showed the limited options Democrats and Republicans, but especially Rauner, have in a tough election year. Leaving Springfield without a budget deal would be a particular blow to Rauner in his re-election campaign against Democrat J.B. Pritzker.
"We have a solution that meets the critical needs of the state, understanding that it's not a perfect solution and that it requires us to continue to work together," said Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, a Republican budget negotiator. "This is a realistic, workable plan."
Several Republicans, including Wheaton Rep. Jeanne Ives, who narrowly lost a March primary election challenge to Rauner, disputed negotiators' claims that the budget is balanced and decried the continually secretive way in which a handful of legislative leaders determine the fiscal priorities for 13 million Illinois taxpayers. And Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, lashed out at Rauner for accepting a budget flush with revenue from a $5 billion income tax increase lawmakers enacted over Rauner's objections last summer to finally break the impasse.
"The taxpayers of this state are getting killed, and this budget continues the carnage," McSweeney cried, imploring Rauner to make good on his promise to roll back the tax increase from 4.95 percent to its previous 3 percent.
Elementary and secondary education gets about a $350 million increase, and lawmakers pointed out that less-flashy, but critical, expenditures were fully funded, including pension obligations and $4 billion for state-employee health insurance. Spending increases by less than 3 percent, about the rate of inflation, and many spending lines are held flat.
Grease to the wheels this year was Rauner's sudden abandonment of business-friendly, anti-union revamps he demanded the last three years in exchange for a budget. Rauner was notably silent this spring on his long-held demands for a statewide property-tax freeze, workers' compensation program restrictions, and term limits for politicians. Even the cost-saving initiatives he proposed in the budget plan he put forward in February — requiring local school districts to pick up the employer costs for teacher pensions and steep cost-reductions in employee health care — disappeared.
But past injuries were not forgotten by Pritzker, who released a statement highlighting how Rauner "forced our state into a historic 736 days without a budget."
"Three-and-a-half years into his term, I urge Bruce Rauner to resist his heartless instincts to play politics with people's lives and sign a full budget for the first time," Pritzker said.
The plan does not solve Illinois problems. While negotiators said it covers payments for ongoing bond indebtedness, it offers just token help for a yawning, $130 billion pension program shortfall. Included are buyout programs that offer state employees and others with state pensions lump sum payouts now in exchange for later retirement increases, designed to save $445 million.
And it has no direct impact on $6.6 billion in overdue bills, although that pile is down $10 billion from a year ago.
"It will take a long time to reduce that," Democratic state Comptroller Susana Mendoza said in a statement. "We can't breathe easy yet, but having this stability and predictability will at least allow us to breathe."
Contact Political Writer John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/john%20o'connor
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