Illinois lawmakers returning to deal with $7B budget hole, COVID-19 fallout

Illinois lawmakers returning to deal with $7B budget hole, COVID-19 fallout

What to watch for as the Illinois General Assembly convenes for the first time in more than two months.

The Illinois General Assembly was rapidly moving through the spring 2020 legislative session before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, bringing things to an abrupt halt. The last time lawmakers convened session was March 13. Since then, the Statehouse has been quiet and empty.

But after being out of session for almost nine weeks, lawmakers will convene for a three-day special session May 20-22 to address seven areas of pressing legislation.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is special session?

Special session differs from regular session in that only certain topics can be addressed. This means legislation unrelated to those topics may not be called, debated or voted on. The seven topics at hand are:

  • COVID-19-related legislation
  • State budget
  • Economic recovery and infrastructure projects
  • Progressive income tax constitutional amendment
  • Sunset clauses
  • 2020 general election
  • Hospital assessment program

State budget

One of the most important topics to be voted on during the special session is the state budget. With the COVID-19 pandemic blowing a $7 billion hole in state revenues, state government and local governments alike will be feeling the pinch.

The General Assembly is expected to grant Gov. J.B. Pritzker special spending authority to address the pandemic in Illinois.

Particularly concerning is that the state is scheduled to grant $261 million in pay raises to state workers on July 1 – including an across-the-board pay hike of 2.1% as well as automatic “step” increases for an additional year of service. Meanwhile, more than 1 million Illinoisans are out of work entirely, with many still waiting for unemployment benefits.

Progressive income tax constitutional amendment

The General Assembly is quickly approaching the deadline to approve ballot language for Pritzker’s proposed progressive income tax. Democratic lawmakers must submit language for an argument in favor of the progressive income tax, and Republican lawmakers must submit an argument against. The House and the Senate must approve both arguments in order for them to appear on the ballot.

Given the current crisis, a better alternative to debating argument language on the progressive income tax question is to withdraw the amendment altogether. House Joint Resolution 123 was introduced to do just that.

The General Assembly has the ability to withdraw the proposed amendment by a simple majority vote.

The rate hikes associated with the amendment would hit roughly 100,000 Illinois small businesses and cost the state at least 56,000 jobs just as residents will be struggling to recover from the most rapid economic downturn in U.S. history. Meanwhile, the proposal offers a mere $6 in income tax relief to low-income residents.

Now more than ever, Illinoisans need serious tax relief. Hiking taxes in a recession is a basic policy mistake.

2020 general election

One possible topic to be debated and voted on is creating a statewide vote-by-mail ballot initiative, modeled after Colorado. This initiative could require the state to mail a ballot to every registered voter in Illinois. As currently discussed, the legislation would only apply to the 2020 General Election.

There is no shortage of issues the General Assembly must address during this short special session. Lawmakers need to focus on policies that will bring relief to Illinoisans who desperately need it.

In addition to withdrawing the progressive income tax hike amendment, the General Assembly needs to loosen regulations that act as barriers to workers, especially health care workers. A good place to start would be to repeal Illinois’ certificate of need law. Another area to give Illinoisans relief would be to delay the collection of business property taxes, and expand government fine and penalty relief programs.

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