Budget bills were filed after committee hearing scheduled to discuss them
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
It was 6:00 a.m. Saturday, April 9, by the time lawmakers adjourned their regular spring session which had been scheduled to conclude the day prior.
When all was settled, lawmakers had passed 236 bills from April 1 to April 9, more than half of the 411 that cleared both chambers of the General Assembly this session which began in January.
For everyone involved, including the press corps, it was a grueling process capped by a full-day slog that began Friday morning and ended as the Saturday morning sun rose.
It’s a process that left Republicans asking questions three hours before the legislature’s self-imposed “deadline” – during a 9:00 p.m. committee hearing – about a trio of budget bills totaling nearly 5,000 pages that had either just been filed or were still being processed.
“I don’t know what we’re supposed to gain from this hearing when we don’t have anything in front of us,” Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said at the hearing. “How do you possibly begin to ask questions about something that doesn’t yet exist?”
Roughly eight hours later, the bills cleared both chambers of the General Assembly. Gov. JB Pritzker signed them Tuesday.
It’s also a process that left advocacy groups like the ACLU of Illinois reeling as late amendments were filed to two major bills that crack down on organized retail crime and greatly extend a video surveillance program on expressways and the state highway system of 22 counties.
Among other controversial, hastily-passed bills was a Medicaid omnibus that saw a late addition expanding state-subsidized health care for low-income non-citizens aged 42 and older (it had previously been 55 and older), with a price tag of just less than $70 million.
While those bills and dozens of others passed as Illinoisans slept, longtime Statehouse observer and former Chicago Sun-Times Capitol bureau chief Charlie Wheeler, 80, was among those who stayed up through the night to keep an eye on lawmakers.
“I actually stayed up all night following it,” Wheeler said. “And it was sort of like deja vu. Because the fact that the legislature didn’t finish until the sun was coming up, that happened, I can’t tell you the specific days, but that happened not infrequently when I was an active reporter.”
Wheeler worked for the Sun-Times for 24 years until 1993, when he became director of the University of Illinois Springfield Public Affairs Reporting program and remained a Statehouse observer.
And while this year’s deadline push came earlier in the calendar year than at any time since the state ratified a new constitution in 1970 so that lawmakers would have more time to campaign for the June primaries, Wheeler said the process isn’t surprising.
“A bill has to go through, all along, the different stops,” he said. “There’s opportunities for amendments for stuff being worked out. And people procrastinate. But they would go down to the 11th hour trying to negotiate a settlement or trying to get concessions. And then, finally, when time was just about up, they put something up there.”
We’ve seen it before in the four budget cycles we’ve covered at Capitol News Illinois. The current-year budget cleared at about 2 a.m last year. Gov. JB Pritzker was forced to issue an amendatory veto to fix drafting errors in that plan about two weeks later, which lawmakers quickly accepted.
On January 13, 2021, it was just before 5:00 a.m. when the Senate passed the controversial SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform. The House passed it just before noon the same day. They’ve since amended the SAFE-T Act with three follow-up measures.
“I just think the nature of the beast is these negotiations usually go to the last minute, and I think that that’s always going to be a thing,” said House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who has spent 16 years in the General Assembly and will retire after this term.
Sen. Jason Barickman, a Republican from Bloomington who has served in the General Assembly since 2011, said while late nights have been common during his tenure, the days have gotten longer since Democrats claimed supermajorities in each chamber and the governor’s office in 2019.
“It plays to all of the public’s worst fears,” he said of the late-night legislating, noting lawmakers were making major decisions with little information on little rest.
Harris pointed out that the House posted a version of the budget a few days before adjournment, although it saw several changes before its final passage under a different bill number.
“People had a chance to read probably several thousand pages that were in there,” he said. “There were some changes that got made, errors got corrected before the final vote happened. So I think that’s good.”
Democrats, including Harris and Pritzker, have tended to focus on the outcome of the legislation rather than the process behind its passage, specifically touting the budget’s debt and tax relief components as well as investments in public safety and violence prevention.
“The amount of money that we’re paying in interest every year has been reduced by hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars,” Harris said, speaking of the debt relief plan. “So that’s money that can go directly to things like education and health care and child care, as opposed to interest payments.”
Pritzker, in an April 9 news conference called four hours after the all-night session adjourned, noted there were months of appropriations hearings in which state agencies laid out their spending requests – many of which we covered at Capitol News Illinois.
“There have been hearings for months on all of the various aspects of this budget,” Pritzker said when asked about the late-night process. “I introduced the budget back February 3 when I held the State of the State budget address. That is the fundamental underpinning of the budget that passed. The basics of this budget had been known by everybody – Republican, Democrats – since then.”
While there is truth to the governor’s point, if it were true to the letter, lawmakers wouldn’t have had to file the 3,448-page Senate Amendment 4 to House Bill 900 shortly after the committee hearing on the budget had already concluded and hours after they had filed the 3,479-page Senate Amendment 3.
And they would have had the 544-page budget implementation bill – referred to as the BIMP in Illinois Capitol lingo – ready before that committee met.
Republicans have pointed out that even though certain components of the budget might have been long discussed, the process is ripe for unexpected last-minute additions.
Rep. Tom Demmer, a Dixon Republican who is running for treasurer, called out some unusual additions to the BIMP in his floor speech amid its early-morning passage. One complaint he had was with the removal of a statutory requirement that the Legislative Budget Oversight Commission meet quarterly.
“This has been an incredibly important commission, one that, honestly frustratingly, has met only once a quarter during the last couple of budget years,” Demmer said.
Demmer noted the bipartisan commission was the only avenue for lawmakers to question a measure quietly included in last year’s budget that allowed the governor to spend up to $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds without having to seek further approval from lawmakers.
“We need a way to come back when we’re not in session and get the answers that the people of Illinois deserve,” Demmer said. “This budget takes a step back in transparency.”
Harris said the Oversight Commission language was discussed with the governor’s office before being included in the BIMP.
“And I don’t think for a minute that whatever the language was about the LBOC meetings would have made a difference to Republicans. They were there to vote against it,” Harris said. “It’s the most fiscally responsible budget we’ve seen in decades. They voted against it. It funded the police. They voted against that. It funded mental health. They voted against that. They’re just looking for a reason to say no.”
Jerry Nowicki is the bureau Chief of Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.