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Pritzker defends new Illinois budget pushed through by Dems with $1 billion in projects
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Pritzker defends new Illinois budget pushed through by Dems with $1 billion in projects

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker defended the $43.2 billion state budget bill passed by the General Assembly late Monday and early Tuesday amid complaints from Republicans that the spending plan was irresponsible.

The Democratic governor said at an afternoon news conference Tuesday that the Democratic-controlled legislature passed "a real balanced budget ... for the third straight year."

Pritzker pledged to sign the budget bill headed to his desk. He said spending priorities he shares with Democratic leaders in the Illinois House and Senate resulted in a budget "that demonstrates fiscal responsibility works with a progressive vision of governance."

Pritzker commended the legislature for violence-prevention, affordable-housing and youth-employment initiatives in the budget.

"These are historic investments that have never before been made in Illinois, investments in real solutions — and they're critical steps in our efforts to tackle root causes of violence," Pritzker said.

The governor pushed back against Republican criticism of Democrats' refusal to restore all nine of the corporate tax breaks Pritzker initially targeted for elimination to help deal with a downturn in state revenues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent upswing in expected revenues during Illinois' economic recovery allowed Democrat leaders to restore several but not all of the breaks. Pritzker said the more than $660 million in expected annual savings by eliminating most of the breaks will chip away at what is known as the state's "structural" deficit.

The governor said the budget outline "addresses the historical structural deficit and makes responsible choices: Paying off debt early, nearly eliminating our backlog of bills and making critical investments to stimulate economic growth, jobs and opportunity for our people."

Pritzker said Republicans wanted to use one-time money from the federal American Rescue Plan "to kick the budget 'can' down the road and give favors to wealthy business interests. Instead, those dollars should be used to bring real relief to working families and spur economic recovery and safety in our communities.

"In contrast, we Democrats are investing in priorities that will grow and revitalize our economy, improving our fiscal outlook dramatically and reducing tax expenditures on the wealthiest corporations," Pritzker said. "It's the Democrats that are getting the state's fiscal house in order."

The General Revenue Fund budget bill for fiscal 2022 includes $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding. It fully funds a recommended $350 million boost in the school aid formula that Pritzker proposed to forgo in February when the state's revenue picture was less certain.

The spending plan contains no tax increases and avoids a 10% cut suggested by Pritzker earlier this year in the share of the state income tax funneled to municipalities and transit districts in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The budget would pay off the remaining $2 billion in the $3.2 billion that Illinois borrowed from the federal government to shore up state finances during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Senate Bill 2800 would enact a balanced budget and avoid a previously projected $1.3 billion budget deficit, according to Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago.

Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago, said on the floor of the Senate at 2:10 a.m., before the Senate voted on the plan, "This budget turned out better than we could have imagined,"

The Senate's 37-21 vote included no Republicans votes in support. Neither did the House's earlier vote of 72 to 44. One Republican House lawmaker voted "present."

The optimistic description of the state's fiscal condition from Democrats in the House and Senate ended with partisan acrimony before the votes.

Republicans said they were all but shut out of negotiations that resulted in more than 3,900 pages of budget documents produced by Democrats. The final proposal became public with only a few hours' notice late Monday and early Tuesday.

Harris said in a House committee meeting that an additional $1 billion in funding from the state's share of the American Rescue Plan would be used in the budget for infrastructure projects suggested by lawmakers.

Almost $6 billion of the $8.4 billion the state will receive through the federal law has yet to be appropriated over the next four years.

Pritzker said the $1 billion in projects "will jumpstart critical projects in our plans to Rebuild Illinois, hastening much-needed improvements — like our Connect Illinois broadband plan — and getting more jobs into more communities."

Harris indicated Democratic lawmakers would be the ones directing how the $1 billion would be spent. It was unclear whether Republican lawmakers would get any of the money for their legislative districts.

Neither Harris nor Sims responded to allegations from Republicans that Democrats who created a partisan redistricting map to be approved by Pritzker would then be able to shower those new districts with "member initiatives" to solidify political support.

Democratic leaders cut off Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, when he tried to ask more questions about the spending plan.

Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, repeated similar complaints in his chamber about "Democratic pork projects," and he said the budget contained a cost-of-living pay raise for legislators and $666 million in "job-killing tax increases just when our economy is starting to come out of COVID-19.

"This budget is an unparalleled spending spree of epic proportions," Rose said.

The increased state revenues allowed Democrats to take off the table some of Pritzker's proposals for eliminating corporate tax breaks as a way of saving the state more than $900 million in the next fiscal year.

But several of the most significant changes in the tax breaks remained in the Democrats' budget, and Republicans consider those to be tax increases affecting 6,200 businesses throughout the state.

Republicans said the additional revenues would have allowed the General Assembly to avoid axing all nine of the tax breaks Pritzker had proposed and aid the state in its economic recovery at the same time.

Sims pushed back against the Republicans' criticisms.

He said the budget "absolutely funds" Democrats' priorities "because we are fighting for individuals who cannot fight for themselves."

He said Democrats prioritized education funding, money for programs serving young people and people with autism rather than "big businesses that are more profitable than they ever have been."

Sims said Republicans had ample chances to share their views at 30 budget hearings but chose not to fully take part in the budgeting process.

"The ability to be inclusive is a two-way street," Sims said. "Don't only come to the table and say 'no.' If you want to obstruct, we will govern without you."

Democrats in the Senate used their supermajority to approve a bill after the budget debate that was designed to stop the cost-of-living raises for lawmakers.

But Rose said the bill was a false promise by Democrats because the House, which also would need to approve the pay freeze and send it to Pritzker's desk, adjourned for the spring session without taking action on the bill.

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