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By Mike Sandrolini
PROVISO | The Illinois House wasn’t in session last week, but State. Rep. Chris Welch of the 7th District was in session with his constituents.
Welch met last Friday morning in La Grange with constituents at a Coffee and Conversation event, which he hosts periodically around the district. He described the turnout as “great.” As you might guess, one topic dominated the conversation: the state budget impasse.
If no agreement is reached over the next couple of months, Illinois will have gone without a budget for two years.
“Everyone is anxious for the state to resolve the budget impasse,” Welch said. “Our higher education is suffering, our social service providers are suffering and everyone just wants this thing to come to an end. They want it to end now. I understand it.”
Despite the frustrations among his constituents, as well as in Springfield and across the state, Welch said he’s trying to remain hopeful that an agreement can be hammered out. He cites a recent meeting between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan to discuss the budget.
“That’s the first time they’ve sat down and talked about the budget in over a year,” Welch said. “As we return this week, I am hopeful that those discussions are going to lead to a very productive rest of May in that before we come home June 1 that we have a budget for the first time in two years. I hope there’s more positive signs to come and that these conversations will lead to budget proposals being put in front of us very soon.”
The House returned to the state capitol this week. If a budget deal is reached before June 1, it would require only a simple majority vote by the State Legislature to approve it. However, any budget accord reached on, or after, June 1 would need approval by a two-thirds majority.
“Constitutionally you need a supermajority to get anything done after that,” he said. “It’ll be easier hopefully to get it done before June 1 so I’m going to stay hopeful with conversations taking place that we can get something done.”
There was plenty of talk about a “grand bargain” budget agreement in February and March. That deal would have included a partial local tax freeze, state tax hikes and spending cuts, worker’s compensation changes, pension reform and expanded gambling. It has since stalled out, but Welch said it’s his understanding that there are still conversations about it in the Senate and “that the grand bargain may reappear.”
“And again, that’s another positive sign,” he said. “Anytime you can have people talking about the budget is a positive sign because at one point, we didn’t have any conversations going on for an extended period of time. Nothing was going to get done without people talking.”
Another possibility is another stopgap budget, which last year funded K-12 education along with government services such as road construction for six months. That stopgap deal expired on Dec. 31, 2016. Welch said House Bill 109 would provide around $850 million of funding for social service providers as well as the state’s colleges and universities.
“It is something that I voted for and fully supported because I have been in the midst of a tour of all of our colleges and universities and they are suffering; they are on the brink of devastation,” he said. “These are dollars that are collected for a specific purpose. They can’t be spent on anything other than for that, so these funds are just sitting there waiting for an appropriation.
“We need to provide any type of lifeline we can to social service providers and colleges and universities. I know the bill is in the Senate; I think it’s going to have a favorable outcome in the Senate. I just hope that the governor would sign the bill into law and prevent further damage to our social service providers and our colleges and universities.”
Four state universities—Northeastern, Eastern Illinois, SIU-Carbondale and Governors State—have already been downgraded to junk-bond status. Overall, Illinois has the lowest credit rating of any state in the nation and the nation’s second-highest property tax rates. The total debt for state and local retirement pensions is around $200 billion and climbing.
“We certainly have to do something about the pension debt in this state,” Welch said. “I think the way we’re going to address the pension debt is by finding ways to increase revenue. The (Illinois) Supreme Court has spoken not once, but twice, that we can’t diminish (pension) benefits so the only way we’re really going to address the pension crisis is to agree on a new revenue stream for the state.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reported in late December, 2016, that Illinois has seen more people leave the state than any other state for the third consecutive year (2014-2016). Welch said he is aware of the out-migration the state is experiencing, but he puts the blame squarely at the feet of Rauner.
“People are leaving and the out-migration is real because we don’t have a budget, and the instability is pause for concern,” he said. “We see that at a heightened level with our university system, students are going with colleges out of state and they may never return to our state; faculty and staff are being poached and recruited by other states and are leaving our universities; they may never return.
“The mere fact that we don’t have a budget and the instability that that is causing is causing people to leave our state. If the governor would do his job, and his No. 1 job is to propose a balanced budget, we could stop that out-migration today.”