By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – After a two-year stalemate, Illinois finally has a budget, with a tax increase that, among other things, will restore funding for road projects, social services, schools and universities.
The historic vote last week to overturn Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s vetoes, was a major blow to the business-minded governor who adamantly opposed any increase that did not include other items on his agenda — a freeze on property taxes, cuts to workers’ compensation and term limits.
Rauner’s first term as governor has included attacks on public-sector unions, demands for term limits for politicians and a call for lasting negative changes to the state’s long underfunded pension system. Whether the budget vote indicates a bipartisan shift away from Rauner’s agenda remains to be seen.
When the votes are analyzed, it should be noted that a small group of downstate Republicans made a crucial difference in keeping state government functioning and – hopefully – halting the slide of the state’s credit rating to “junk” status.
It wouldn’t have happened if 10 Republican House members hadn’t had the courage to vote against Rauner and his unlimited supply of campaign money. Of the 10, seven were from central and southern Illinois – areas that would have been hardest hit had lawmakers failed to pass the budget.
The budget wound up at $36.5 billion, counting about $3 billion in cuts, with an increase in the personal income tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent.
The first fruits of the override came on Friday, when road construction crews began returning to work after being sent home the previous Monday for lack of a budget. Some 900 projects totaling $3.3 billion had been shut down, affecting about 20,000 workers.
The final House votes to overturn Rauner’s vetoes of the budget and tax bills came on Thursday, July 6, but the stage was set on July 4, when central Illinois Republican Senator Dale Righter cast the crucial vote to override Rauner’s veto of the tax increase.
Righter is a lawyer from Mattoon whose district includes Eastern Illinois University, which has been under severe financial pressure. He was the only Republican who voted for the Senate override, and it passed by only one vote.
Just as important was the effort of Senator Bill Haine (D-Alton), who took time out from a tough fight against cancer to travel to Springfield and cast his vote to override.
Altogether, it was a tumultuous Independence Week in Springfield, where people had become accustomed to the idea of dysfunctional government and a seemingly inevitable collapse of the state’s credit rating.
DOWNSTATE REPUBLICANS WITH THE COURAGE TO HELP
The downstate House Republicans provided the margins needed to pass the bills and override the vetoes included:
• Terri Bryant, 115th District, Murphysboro, a former Department of Corrections administrator and Republican Party activist, elected in 2015.
• Reginald Phillips, 110th District, Charleston, a construction business operator elected in 2015.
• Sara Wojcicki Jiminez, 99th District, Leland Grove near Springfield, a former television news reporter and governmental press secretary elected in 2015.
• Bill Mitchell, 101st District, Forsyth near Decatur, an assistant Republican leader and formerly a farmer, in the House since 1999.
• Norine Hammon, 93rd District, Macomb, in office since 2010 and formerly a legislative aide.
• Michael Unes, 91st District, East Peoria, formerly in computer networking, and a legislator since 2011.
• Chad Hays, 104th District, former mayor of Catlin, near Danville, in office since 2010.
Four other downstate Republicans helped pass the tax plan but later switched their votes to try to sustain the veto. They were Charlie Meier of nearby Okawville; C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville, David Reis of Olney and John Cavaletto of Salem. Their statements cited strong constituent reaction. So what was originally called “the Brave 15” wound up as 10.
Some House Republicans actually broke into tears as they voted for the tax increase, saying they oppose such increases on principle but could not watch the state deteriorate further.
“The trajectory we are on right now is immoral,” said Unes. “We have to have a budget. For me today, right here, right now, this is the sword that I’m willing to die on. And if it costs me my seat, so be it.”
Illinois has functioned without a budget since Rauner was elected. He has insisted on measures to weaken the Labor Movement as his price for cooperation on a budget. Democrats in charge of the Legislature have not been willing to give in to his demands, which have included gutting workers’ compensation, allowing local “right-to-work” schemes, delaying prevailing wage updates and doing away without public employee unions.
Meanwhile, the ill effects of life without a budget have been piling ever higher:
• Social services that help children, veterans, senior citizens and the poor have gone without payments, forcing some to close.
• Public school systems have operated on shoestring budgets, with many warning they can’t open this fall without state funding.
• State universities, which are enormous regional economic generators, have been losing enrollment and in danger of losing accreditation.
• Private companies that supply the state or provide services have gone unpaid, forcing some out of business and leaving others barely hanging on.
• State debt has reached an unprecedented $15 billion, accumulating $800 million a year in interest. In the fiscal year that just ended, the state spent $40 billion on $32 billion in revenue.
“That’s like putting $800 million in the middle of the road and setting fire to it,” said Representative David Harris of Arlington Heights, one of the Republicans who voted for the budget, tax plan and override. “The state is being destroyed financially.”
HAINE RETURNS FOR KEY VOTE
Senator Haine, 72, served as Madison County state’s attorney for 14 years and has been in the Senate since 2002. He has been undergoing treatment since February after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that attacks the bones, but he returned to Springfield to cast a crucial vote to overturn the veto.
“This has been a trying time for both my family and me,” he said. “However, being present to help bring stability back to the state is of absolute importance.
“Although I have been facing some hardships over the last few months, this is bigger than me. This is about the citizens of Illinois and ensuring they have a future in this great state.
“I will be in Springfield … to help make sure schools open in the fall, state universities receive state funding and seniors continue to receive the care they need.”
HOFFMAN LAUDS BIPARTISAN VOTE
Representative Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea), chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, is widely credited with protecting Labor interests in the Legislature by blocking anti-union bills. After the final House vote, he emphasized the bipartisan nature of the veto override.
“Today I stood with 10 of my Republican colleagues to pass a balanced budget that will begin to repair the damage that has been caused under Governor Rauner’s manufactured budget impasse,” he said.
“Our compromise budget, that we negotiated with rank-and-file Republican House members, includes nearly $3 billion dollars in cuts to state spending – reducing spending by $800 million more than Governor Rauner’s proposal. This also ensured that schools will open on time, critical services for the elderly and the developmentally disabled will be funded, and our higher educational institutions won’t be forced to close their doors.”
Most House Democrats were on board for Senate Bill 6, which contained the proposed budget. But several voted against Senate Bill 9, which contained the tax increase to fund it. It still had enough votes to pass because of the 15 Republican votes.
Among those voting against it were two Metro East area Democratic representatives, Katie Stuart of Edwardsville and Jerry Costello II of Red Bud. They also voted against overriding the bill on Thursday.
Stuart said she voted against it because she opposes the state’s flat-rate income tax system and wants it made more progressive like those in most other states.
“In the few months I have been in office, I have been clear that I don’t believe turning to the middle class to pay more in taxes is the answer to the governor’s budget crisis,” she said. “We should instead require millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share and close the corporate loopholes that big corporations use to rig the system.”
Sue Scherer, a Democrat from Decatur, voted against the tax increase when it was passed but then cast a needed vote to override Rauner’s veto of the tax. She is a former teacher who has been in the House since 2013.
All other Democratic representatives from the Metro-East and southern Illinois voted for the budget, tax plan and override. They included Dan Beiser of Alton, Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg, LaToya Greenwood of East St. Louis and Hoffman. Senators Andy Manar of Bunker Hill and James Clayborne of Belleville joined Haine in voting for the tax veto override.
KEEPING ILLINOIS VIABLE
In a statement explaining his initial vote for the tax increase, Representative Meier noted that if the state’s credit rating were allowed to descend to “junk” status, most institutions could not legally buy its bonds.
“In light of the estimated $22 billion deficit and $15 billion in unpaid bills we are faced with today, I made the best decision possible in order to keep the state of Illinois viable for our residents. I was left with two bad choices and only two bad choices. I had to pick the least bad of the two choices. I chose to save the state first and continue to fight for reforms. The other option was unthinkable and irresponsible.”
It wasn’t so unthinkable, and irresponsible, however, to keep him from switching his vote on the override.