Slow start to Illinois session called to solve budget fight

By Sophia Tareen 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — The first day of a costly special legislative session aimed at solving Illinois’ unprecedented budget crisis got off to a slow start with both the House and Senate adjourning quickly Wednesday without making any substantive progress.

Instead, Democrats and Republicans used news conferences and floor speeches to say they were ready to compromise and blame the other party for the gridlock that could stretch into a third year if lawmakers don’t approve a budget by July 1.

Republicans touted their own budget, which caps spending at $36 billion and includes reforms GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner wants such as term limits and government consolidation, along with a temporary income tax increase. But House Republican Leader Jim Durkin brushed aside questions raised by House Democrats.

“When Democrats claim that our budget isn’t balanced, it means we’re doing our job,” Durkin told reporters. “Because they couldn’t balance their way out of a wet paper bag and they haven’t for their time down here.”

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters his chamber was ready to answer the governor’s special session call, and work on a budget with anyone who wanted to compromise. But he later issued a statement saying his chamber would spend the next two days hearing testimony about how some of the governor’s proposed reforms would hurt the middle class, including workers’ compensation and a property tax freeze. A House committee heard tearful testimony Wednesday from nonprofits who help domestic violence victims.

“We owe it to the people directly affected by these changes to give them a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion, not just to hear from the corporate CEOs whispering in Governor Rauner’s ear,” Madigan said in a statement.

The special session could last the full 10 days Rauner has called for, with legislative leaders saying Wednesday that they intend to show up each day. The Senate met briefly Wednesday to consider appointments and then members of each party met privately to plan the week. Senate Democrats have approved a $37.3 billion spending plan that includes cuts and an income tax increase, and are pushing it as a compromise option.

Still, no one seemed to budge Wednesday in the budget fight that began in in 2015 when Rauner took office. He wants pro-business reforms in conjunction with a budget that relies on a tax increase. Democrats have argued that they’ve taken up several ideas, but Republicans keep changing their demands. Republicans say Democrats water down their proposals.

The stakes are very high for Illinois, which already has the lowest credit rating of any U.S. state. Ratings agencies have said without a budget, Illinois will be downgraded to “junk” status. The state’s backlog of unpaid bills tops $15 billion with social service agencies and higher education among the hardest hit. Without a spending plan, transportation projects could be halted and some lottery games could end.

The special session is also expensive, with a single day costing roughly $48,000.

The Secretary of the Senate’s office provided an estimate, accounting for $111 daily per diem and 39 cents per mile for 177 members of the General Assembly, along with paying staff needed when lawmakers are at the Capitol. Actual costs may be lower, with not all lawmakers in attendance each day and some forgoing the per diem payments.

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