Pritzker signs $43B budget; plan relies on federal assistance

By John  O’Connor
AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Wednesday an Illinois budget heavily reliant on borrowing because of revenue lost to COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and social interaction. 

But even short of revenue, Democrats who control the General Assembly sent the Democratic governor a $42.9 billion spending plan, 7.5% larger than the current year’s outlay. It takes effect July 1. 

The legislation allows the state to borrow up to $5 billion from a federal COVID-19 relief fund and relies on billions of dollars more in hoped-for federal assistance to shore up state accounts amid the pandemic. 

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Republicans objected to the plan during an abbreviated, four-day emergency session in May that stood for a full spring session’s worth of work. They wanted spending cuts, but Democrats said balancing the budget with cuts would be too drastic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the enormous role government plays in keeping communities safe and providing the tools people need to build better lives,” Pritzker said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “While the pandemic has had a devastating impact on our state revenues, investing in our people will allow the state to rebound and recover from this pandemic as we safely re-open.”

The highly contagious, potentially lethal coronavirus, which through Wednesday had infected nearly 130,000 in Illinois and led to the deaths of 6,095, forced Pritzker in mid-March to close schools, nonessential businesses and order people to stay at home, decrees that remained virtually unchanged through May 30. Retail sales dipped nearly 6% in March and more than 21% in April, according to the General Assembly’s bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. 

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Unemployment soared to 16.4% and the commission estimates personal and corporate income tax revenue will fall $1.5 billion short of what it did last year, with sales tax receipts down $121 million. 

Overall, Pritzker said state revenue will be $4 billion lower than what experts predicted when the governor proposed a budget in February. 

State officials have begun the process for securing the $5 billion federal loan. Pritzker and governors across the nation are hoping for additional relief packages from Washington to fill gaps and repay that loan. The state is still spending $3.3 billion it received for COVID-19 expenses in April, although that money is restricted to specific items, such as protective clothing, used to combat the virus. 

For the first year since the vaunted change in public-school funding took effect in 2018, there is no additional money for the K-12 school funding formula to continue a 10-year phase-in of the revised formula. It provides more money to needier school districts — when there’s money to put in. However, no district will get less next year than it currently receives.

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Despite the temptation to short the state’s woefully underfunded pension programs, the budget fully foots the $8.6 billion bill owed next year. The massive annual payments are part of a pledge by lawmakers to make up over the next several decades the pension accounts’ combined $140 billion deficit. 

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