SPRINGFIELD — The 99th Illinois General Assembly adjourned Tuesday without passing a comprehensive state budget during its entire two-year term.
On the final day of their two-day lame-duck session, however, lawmakers did approve bills requiring schools to test water for lead, enacting a series of criminal justice reforms and extending a controversial business tax credit program, among other measures.
The House also approved a bill that would freeze the total amount of property tax revenue units of local government can collect without getting voter approval for an increase. But the vote was purely symbolic because there wasn’t enough time for the Senate to take it up before adjourning.
Still, the measure, sponsored by Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, won praise from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has made a property tax freeze one of the key pieces of his policy agenda.
Rauner said in a prepared statement that the House “took a step in the right direction and passed our permanent property tax freeze.”
“A property tax freeze where you control whether your property taxes go up or not will help change the system in Illinois, create jobs and keep families from fleeing the state,” Rauner said.
Whether that concept becomes a reality once the new General Assembly is sworn in Wednesday remains to be seen.
While there’s widespread acknowledgement that Illinois’ high property taxes are a burden on residents and businesses, opponents argue that freezing property taxes will harm school districts, which rely on the money for much of their funding.
Meanwhile, Rauner also expressed his support a measure that will require schools that were built before 2000 and house preschool through fifth-grade classes to test their drinking water for lead. The bill, which also would apply to day-care facilities, was approved in both chambers during the lame-duck session with bipartisan support.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, was a response to lead being found in the drinking water of about two dozen Chicago schools in the wake of the crisis over lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan.
Long-term exposure to lead contamination in drinking water can lead to developmental problems in young children.
“Identifying the sources of lead is key to preventing lead in the bloodstream for kids,” Steans said.
Also passed in both chambers with bipartisan support was a measure from Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, that would create local “trauma recovery centers” to provide services to crime victims. The measure also would give offenders time off of their sentences for participating in addiction and mental health treatment, job training and other programs while in prison and give judges more discretion in sentencing people to probation instead of prison.
The trauma centers will be a pilot program funded with federal money and administered by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Crediting both Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, for their support of efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system, Gordon-Booth said the legislation is an indication of what can be done when the two parties work together on important issues.
“We are in a space in this time right now where if we have the ability to work together, like we have on this kind of legislation, we can move a lot of fantastic pieces of legislation,” she said.
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The parties also came together to extend through April the controversial Economic Development for a Growing Economy tax credit program. Better known as EDGE, the program has faced questions about its effectiveness in retaining and attracting businesses and jobs.
Lawmakers plan to introduce a proposal to overhaul the program this spring.
Before adjourning, the Senate didn’t take up measures approved in the House on Tuesday that would have changed the state’s workers’ compensation laws and provided $658 million in short-term funding for social services and higher education. Those areas of the budget are without funding after the state’s stopgap spending plan expired at the start of the new year.
In the coming weeks, the Senate hopes to advance a mammoth budget compromise worked out between Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont. The package includes an income tax increase, pension reforms, licenses for six new casinos and a host of other measures.
Senators on both sides of the aisle remain optimistic that it can serve as an outline for ending the standoff that has stretched throughout the first two years of Rauner’s term.
Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said there are many components of the package that he doesn’t like, including some of the tax provisions, but he thinks the effort to reach a negotiated solution “has been monumental in trying to push and lead us out of this rut.”
“If we can pass something similar in a timely fashion, hopefully, it will give the House something to work on,” Brady said.
Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, who lost his re-election bid in November and served his last day in the Senate on Tuesday, said he hopes the plan is a step toward ending the impasse.
“That’s one thing we’ve got to do up here,” Forby said. “We’ve got to go home and take care the people in our district, and No. 1, you’ve got to have a budget.”