House Democrats Pass Spending Plan (Barely)
By Amanda Vinicky
How much you will pay in state taxes next year remains an open question, even as the Illinois House on Thursday approved dozens of spending bills, that rely on a permanently higher tax rate. It sets the stage for a budget battle, just weeks before legislators are set to adjourn for the summer.
The Illinois House convened at 8 o’clock Thursday morning, and spent most of a very long day on the budget. Lawmakers began with a debate on funding Illinois' public education system, giving schools a slight increase over this year.
It's spending that Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat from Homewood, defends.
"We have a responsibility, as representatives here in the State of Illinois, to take care of our citizens," he said. "That is our responsibility. This is the first of many appropriations bills to come, and we are setting the tone. The tone for taking care of citizens here in the state of Illinois! I urge a yes vote."
The measure passed -- but barely. Although the 71 Democrats are more than enough to pass legislation with votes to spare, most bills passed with the bare minimum of 60. The main education budget was a rare exception, and got more: A whopping 61.
And on it went: the Education Labor Relations Board budget, the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities, funding the state's Human Rights Commission.
"We're now at $11 billion, 418 million and climbing, and the day has just begun," said Rep. Dwight Kay (R - Glen Carbon) who kept a tally of how much Illinois was spending.
Back in February, the House approved what's known as a "revenue estimate."
The term that loosely means: this is how much money Illinois expects to take in for the next fiscal year. And therefore, how much money the state can spend.
"The number is $34.495 billion," sponsor Rep. John Bradley, D- Marion, said at the time. "It's a reflection of the beginning of the phase out of the tax increase, coupled with normal, cautious, conservative economic growth."
But the spending bills that Bradley and other House Democrats approved exceeded that cap. Not by a little. They passed it by roughly $3 billion, with no way to bridge the gap.
As Bradley indicated, Illinois' tax rate this year is set to drop at the start of 2015.
Gov. Pat Quinn wants the higher rate extended, permanently. He said, otherwise, "savage" cuts are on the way.
But Democrats are struggling to get enough legislators on board to vote for a tax hike. An election's on the way, and handfuls of Democrats ran on the promise they'd roll back taxes. Remember, voting for the spending is supposed to be the easy part, and even those bills passed by only the narrowest of margins.
Republicans say Democrats are putting the cart before the horse (or donkey, in this case).
"What an injustice here. This isn't Monopoly money. This is the people's hard-earned money," Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R- Elmhurst) said. "There's absolutely no reason to vote for something when I don't know how it's going to be paid for ... so I urge an extremely NO vote."
But the House kept voting: a budget for veterans' programs. State universities. Prisons. Each passing - barely - with support from most Democrats, but no Republicans.
Mind you, Republicans haven't had much to offer about what Illinois should do about the budget, as Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) pointed out. "It's easy to stand over there and try to make light of the majority party as we try to govern. But where is your plan. Where is your plan?" he asked.
After precisely nine hours and 33 minutes of debate, the House was done. Passing 73 bills, spending about $38 billion dollars.
But it's far from over.
"A budget of our size, and complexity, does not happen all at once. It happens over several weeks, and in several bills. We are still in the earlier stages of the fiscal year's budget process," said Rep. Carole Sente (D-Vernon Hills) one of the Democrats who is openly opposed to extending the 5 percent tax rate.
So far, the Senate has been on the sidelines of the budget process. President John Cullerton has said the Senate will vote on taxes ... if and when the House does. Senators have been burned before, by passing controversial measures only to see them languish in the House.
The Senate won't get a chance to vote on the spending just yet, anyway. Typically when legislation passes, it goes to the other chamber. However, Thursday night House Speaker Michael Madigan used a parliamentary procedure known as a "motion to reconsider" that effectively keeps them in the House, and prevents the Senate from acting on them in any way.
Park Ridge Sen. Dan Kotowski -- a Democrat, mind you, not a Republican, says unlike the House, the Senate will not vote on spending until it has locked up a way to pay.
"We don't do budgets based on hypotheticals," he said. "So if the revenue is available and we'll look at it and we'll see. But right now we have to make sure that the spending matches the revenue. We need to make sure that it balances."
There are other possibilities: there are murmurs of meeting in the middle; instead of keeping the tax rate where it is or letting it drop to 3.75 percent, choose a number in between.
Other lawmakers say Illinois could come up with more cash by closing so-called corporate loopholes, or reducing the portion of state taxes shared with cities and towns. The problem is, neither of those ideas would match the amount of money Illinois would rake in through a higher income tax.
Which leaves Democrats scrambling to herd their members.