House Democrats on Thursday approved another one-time spending plan to provide about $815 million to universities and social service groups left gasping for air during the state’s historic budget impasse, but leaders in both parties could hold it up as they push for a more complete spending plan.
Republicans led by Gov. Bruce Rauner oppose the measure, contending lawmakers should instead focus on cutting a more comprehensive deal. And while that effort has proved unsuccessful for the last two years, Democrats in the Senate also are pushing for a broader agreement, saying they are sick of temporary spending plans that only relieve pressure for a short time.
Still, House supporters pressed on Thursday, eager to say they did something before heading home Friday for a two-week spring break.
Sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, ticked off a series of reasons why his colleagues should support the bill during a speech on the House floor. He cited a recent survey from the United Way of Illinois that detailed widespread cuts to groups that provide mental health, violence prevention and job training programs. He listed layoffs and unpaid furloughs at universities, saying the state’s higher education system has already suffered permanent damage.
Under the measure, two specialized state accounts set aside for higher education and social service programs would be tapped to help relieve immediate financial pressure. Those funds are separate from the state’s main checking account, and their money comes through a small portion of income tax revenues.
A total of $817 million would be spent from those special funds, with $258 million to be split among social service agencies and $559 million paying for community colleges, scholarships for low-income students and day-to-day operations at state universities. The House approved by a 64-45 vote, sending it to the Senate, whose members had left for their two-week break hours before the vote.
Though Republicans have previously supported some stopgap spending plans, they said the difference this time is that they were not involved in negotiations. They questioned some of the spending, saying money was being set aside for things that were not urgent, including a program designed to produce teachers to work in distressed schools.
Rep. Steve Andersson, R-Geneva, said releasing the money and would remove the impetus to work toward a full budget.
“The problem is when you vote yes for this, what happens? The pressure gets released off of us again,” he said. “You can call me a hostage taker, feel free. It’s been done before. But the reality is we don’t do things around here without pressure.”
Democrats accused Republicans of scrambling to come up with ways to oppose the measure after Rauner came out against it a day before. They contended that the state GOP has relied on Rauner’s personal wealth to revitalize the party.
“I suggest that you think twice about denying the life raft to these people,” said Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana. “His money cannot protect you from everything, and today is the day you are going to be responsible.”
Rauner has said he would not support another stopgap plan unless it included a permanent property tax freeze, a key portion of his political agenda.
Democrats have opposed such a freeze, saying it would starve local school districts that rely on those dollars. But they did approve a measure Thursday to expand some property-tax exemption programs, a move that could provide them some political cover to fight back against GOP claims they aren’t trying to give homeowners some relief.