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After the Budget, the Battle Over What Happens Next, Or Doesn’t

They can hope and pray, but the budget and tax hikes passed by Senate Democrats are likely to remain bills. But will they remain effective political fodder?

Senate President John Cullerton   Photo: Whet Moser

This week, Whet Moser is Chicago’s Chief Budget Correspondent, reporting from Springfield as the Illinois legislature scrambles to pass its first budget in two years. Find out more about Budget Mayday.

As soon as Democrats passed spending and revenue bills on a party line vote, the GOP pounced. Within moments, Senate minority leader Christine Radogno issued a terse if unheated statement about how Republicans couldn’t support the revenue and spending bills Democrats passed: “We need a balanced budget. We need property tax relief. We need significant reforms to reach our goals.”

Her colleagues brought the heat, though. “Massive tax hike”; “massive tax hike”; “massive tax increase.” Michael Madigan released a statement that was even more terse than Radogno’s: “The appropriations measures passed by the Senate will be thoughtfully considered by the House Democratic Budget Working Group…. They will thoroughly review the Senate’s proposal and consider it as part of our efforts.”

This was the danger in going it alone. But, still: progress? Well, the Tribune story on the bills’ passage is titled “Illinois Senate Democrats pass major tax hikes unlikely to become law.”

If that’s true, and there’s skepticism that a budget of any kind will pass by May 31, that could easily be the epitaph for the spring session—Senate Democrats, hanging by a thread. Their response was to tie it back to the knot that’s been created over the past couple years.

“We worked with Republicans throughout our efforts to pass the grand bargains—Senator Brady, Senator Radogno, and others, and as a result we got ideas from them,” Senate President John Cullerton said after the vote. "We got a compromise. The only unusual part about the compromise is that the Republicans didn’t actually vote for it.”

Before the Senate voted, the governor was busy on Facebook in a question-and-answer session that focused mostly on his property-tax freeze, which has been stuck between the Democrats’ two-year freeze that narrowly failed in the Senate, the Republicans’ four-year compromise, and Rauner’s desire for a permanent one. Cullerton tied that back into old negotiations as well.

“In July of 2015, when Senator Radogno filed a property tax freeze, [two years] was enough,” Cullerton said. “That’s what we’re basing the belief on that we can pass a property tax freeze. We called one the other day and it got 33 votes, a two-year property tax freeze. That’s why I’m optimistic.”

On the Senate floor, bill sponsor Toi Hutchinson played bad cop—about the fearsome and very true prospect of the state’s fiscal situation and political situations simultaneously deteriorating.

“[Negotiations] should continue until May 31st rolls in. Otherwise we’re conscribing ourselves to the official beginning of the governor’s race, and then every decision is marked by political and partisan reasons,” Hutchinson said. "It terrifies me to think about what will happen until what would essentially be 2019. I can’t even bear to think about it… Junk bond status, when you cannot borrow for anything, means no capital bill. It means no infrastructure. It means no roads. Anybody who’s literally saying that they’re holding out for a better deal for the taxpayers, they’re not telling the truth.”

It’s simultaneously a reconciliation, tangling up the layers of policies that have emerged over the past couple years, and an ultimatum, tying it off—whether it works as politics inside the statehouse or outside it.

“We passed Bruce Rauner’s budget today and the income tax that he asked for,” Cullerton said. "How’s that for an answer? Is that a good answer?”

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