By John O’Connor & Sophia Tareen
SPRINGFIELD — A financial showdown more than two years in the making is slated to play out in the Illinois House on Thursday as Democrats try to enact a $36 billion spending plan fueled by a $5 billion income tax increase over the Republican governor’s objection.
House votes to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s vetoes of the budget package would give Illinois its first annual budget since 2015 and spell the end of the nation’s longest fiscal stalemate since at least the Great Depression.
The first-term governor, already facing several Democratic heavyweights hoping to displace him in the 2018 election, took to the trail Wednesday to implore the House — run by Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago — to sustain the vetoes. He’s taken to calling the revenue surcharge “Speaker Madigan’s 32 percent tax hike.”
“This is not just a slap in the face to Illinois taxpayers. This is a 2-by-4 smacked across the foreheads of the people of Illinois,” he told reporters at a bar on Chicago’s far South Side. “This tax hike will solve none of our problems. In fact, in the long run, it will make our problems worse, not better.”
Rauner, a former private equity investor whose massive personal wealth has largely funded the state Republican Party, said he would do “everything possible” to persuade House members to rebuff Madigan, including 15 House Republicans who broke ranks and voted in favor of the measure last weekend. Each of the budget bills cleared the 71-vote veto-proof majority.
He would not elaborate on his tactics.
Rauner has sought pro-business reforms in conjunction with a budget, including a property tax freeze and term limits, and blames the state’s failures on Democrats in power, largely Madigan. Democrats have said many of Rauner’s reforms would hurt the middle class.
For two weeks, lawmakers have been meeting in a special session called precisely to deal with the budget. The session was capped by a flurry of activity on Tuesday, when the Senate sent the permanent tax hike and spending blueprint to Rauner, who rapidly vetoed it, only to have the Democratic-controlled Senate just as swiftly reverse him.
After two holiday-period days in which the House was able to summon fewer than 60 of its 118 representatives, Madigan scheduled the override attempt for Thursday, saying House Democrats are eager to join with Republicans “to begin healing the wounds of the last several years.”
With a $6.2 billion annual deficit and $14.7 billion in overdue bills, disaster is around the corner. The United Way predicts the demise of 36 percent of all human-services agencies in Illinois by year’s end. Road construction work totaling billions of dollars is shutting down. Public universities have been cut to the bone and face a loss of academic accreditation.
The standoff entered a third fiscal year on July 1. Credit-rating houses have threatened to downgrade the state’s creditworthiness to “junk,” signaling to investors that buying state debt is a highly speculative venture. Two agencies gave Illinois some breathing room Monday after Sunday night’s House votes.
But on Wednesday a third, Moody’s Investors Service, put Illinois under review for a downgrade even if lawmakers override Rauner’s veto. Moody’s said that while lawmakers have made progress, the package the House will consider Thursday does not address the state’s massively underfunded pensions or do enough to pay down bills.
Rauner dismissed the possibility of another downgrade for Illinois, which already has the worst credit rating of any U.S. state.
“Don’t listen to Wall Street. Don’t listen to a bunch of politicians who want power,” he said after local business owners talked about rising property taxes and residents going to Indiana to shop. “Listen to the people of Illinois.”
At least a few House Republicans remained defiant Wednesday.
Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights said he supported the budget plan because it is “immoral” for the state to carry a huge backlog of bills and pay $800 million in late-payment interest.
He compared the standoff to a game of “chicken.”
“If it requires some of us to blink to save our state, so be it,” said Harris.
GOP floor leader Rep. Steven Andersson of Geneva also voted in favor of the budget, and he does not plan to change his vote.
“The reason I voted yes hasn’t changed,” Andersson said. “In fact, it’s been reinforced.”