- New ‘balanced’ budget includes more tax increases, expiration of election-year tax relief. The recently passed and signed Fiscal Year 2024 State Budget, which takes effect July 1, contains more tax increases, along with the expiration of the one-year sales tax holiday for groceries and the non-renewal of the back-to-school sales tax holiday. These developments were due in large part to new spending pressures for undocumented immigrants’ health care and were supported by Democrats.
The impact of the tax hikes will be felt by all Illinois families, with the expiration of the gas and grocery tax holiday alone costing residents already dealing with out-of-control inflation over $400 million. Numerous Republican proposals to offer sales tax relief on gasoline were not taken up by the Democratic supermajority this spring. The sunset of the back-to-school tax relief will hit the taxpayers for $30 million more. Clearly, the support Illinois families were given was, once again, an election-year carrot dangled by the Democrats.
The increased taxes on Illinois families could not come at a worse time, with downward national economic trends and high inflation. April household spending was up and the debt households were putting on consumer credit cards jumped sharply in the latest numbers reported.
Democratic lawmakers and Gov. JB Pritzker have boasted about passing another ‘balanced’ budget, but the budget’s impact on hard-working families is nothing to celebrate at all. With inflation, tax hikes, and gimmicks, Illinois residents will continue to be negatively impacted financially with no relief in sight.
- With a wink and a nod, Governor Pritzker gets unfettered powers. One way for lawmakers to get what they want without having to be responsible to voters is to abdicate their Constitutional authority to the governor. What a great scheme: Give the governor the power to spend taxpayers’ money without legislative oversight and legislators won’t have to take responsibility with the voters.
Under the state Constitution, the governor introduces the budget and the legislature appropriates the funds. It’s a checks-and-balance system among equal branches of government. Over the years, when there were hard budget decisions to be made, the Democratic-controlled legislature has increasingly handed over more and more of its appropriations authority to the governor. The outcome of this “wink and nod” system is reduced transparency and accountability in our state government.
The surrender of the legislature’s appropriation responsibility offers individual lawmakers cover with their constituents. They can throw up their hands and proclaim the increased spending on unpopular programs was not in the budget when they voted on it. They, of course, are being both disingenuous and deceptive because they knew all along that the plan to give more authority to the governor would result in more spending not only on the things they couldn’t vote for but wouldn’t have voted for otherwise. A wink and a nod.
This year, the Democratic majority did it again, this time creating “emergency rules” authorizing the governor to make spending decisions when it comes to paying healthcare expenses for a growing number of undocumented immigrants.
“Where’s the emergency?” asked State Representative Steve Reick. “The first step of the emergency rulemaking process requires the administration to define the emergency that prompted the rulemaking and is intended to apply only to true emergencies that require immediate action, such as natural disasters and more recently the COVID pandemic. This Medicaid program has been in place for a year. There is no emergency except the one created by a legislature and administration that was hell-bent on creating a program to serve a powerful political constituency with no consideration of the cost. When the true cost came to light, the administration panicked, and this bill was the result.”
Earlier in the year, the General Assembly received a report that it would cost the State $1.1 billion in FY24 to provide free healthcare benefits to undocumented immigrant adults. An expense that big would mean other important state programs would need to be cut, or taxes increased if we were to fund the program for non-citizens. A hard decision for some Democrats – but then they found a way not to make a decision themselves. They would leave it up to the governor. So, the legislature appropriated half the amount needed for the program and then passed “emergency rules” that would allow the governor to move money around, any way he saw fit, to pay for the outstanding amount. This way the voters would be none the wiser.
“Those health care services are not available for matching funds from the federal government, and we’ve basically kicked the can over to the governor and given him additional emergency rulemaking power,” said House Republican Deputy Leader Ryan Spain. “That was the same power he wielded during the pandemic.”
The General Assembly needs to take back its appropriation-making powers and vote on every line item. It is the only way to maintain a balance of power and keep government accountable to the people. No wink or nod needed.
CORRUPTION & ETHICS
- Jury convicts politically connected James Weis of attempted bribery; longtime state senator wore a wire for feds. This week, a federal jury convicted politically connected businessman James Weiss of attempting to pay off two state legislators to pass a bill beneficial to his sweepstakes gaming company and then lying about it to the FBI.
Weiss is the son-in-law of former Cook County Assessor and Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Joe Berrios. He is married to former State Representative Toni Berrios,
Weiss’ attorney Ilia Usharovich defended his client telling the jury in his closing remarks: “This is a dirty place (the Illinois General Assembly) where the rules seem to be gray, where a contribution can be considered a bribe, a bribe a contribution… It is all messed up.”
The bribery scheme included payments made to then-State Representative Luis Arroyo, who was sentenced in May 2022 to five years in prison for wire fraud, connected with the act of taking and offering bribes.
A second person with a criminal connection to Weiss was longtime State Senator Terry Link, who served for more than 23 years in the Illinois Senate. Link resigned in September 2020, following his conviction on a criminal charge of income tax evasion. He is awaiting sentencing for this offense. As a star witness against Weiss, Link revealed in court this week that as a state senator, he had worn a wire as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as they probed facets of the Weiss bribery network. It is possible that Link’s status as an FBI informant could reduce the criminal penalty that will be imposed on him at sentencing.
The convictions of former Representative Arroyo, former Senator Link, Weiss, and others reflect the current ethical crisis facing the Illinois General Assembly. Despite the fact that ongoing investigative work by the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies has already led to the indictment of many major Illinois political figures, up to and including former Speaker Michael J. Madigan, the Illinois House and Senate once again refused to consider or debate meaningful ethics reform legislation in the 2023 spring session. House Republicans will redouble their efforts in the fall 2023 veto session to pass tough ethics reforms, to finally put an end to the culture of corruption in Illinois.
- Dry weather begins to affect Illinois crop conditions. The USDA report summarizing the production picture as of Sunday, June 11, showed less than half of Illinois’ fields have “adequate” moisture to grow the corn and soybean harvest for which seed was planted this year. The topsoil, which drains first, is dry and dusty in Illinois, with 27% of the fields reporting “adequate” topsoil moisture. In 42% of the fields, moisture is short, and in 31% it is very short.
This means that for at least half of Illinois’ corn and bean fields, growing conditions are fair to poor as of mid-June. Rainfall is usually adequate in June, and the dry weather conditions are being called “the worst drought in a decade.” Some Illinois farmers are starting to express concerns about crop conditions. Heavy rainfall, if it comes, could improve these conditions.
- Friends of educational opportunity mobilize to save scholarship program. Invest in Kids is a State-backed scholarship program for children, including at-risk children and children from disadvantaged households, to gain the opportunity to participate in private-sector schooling. Large tuition bills make it impossible for many families to send their children to private schools, even when they have high prospects and achievement levels. With scholarship assistance, many of these grade-school and high-school-aged students can continue their educational pathway. The program is backed by a State income tax credit. Provision of the credit gives approved Invest in Kids scholarship programs an incentive to create partnerships between private schools and their donors.
The Invest in Kids scholarship program is scheduled for phase-out starting December 31, 2023. Invest in Kids scholarship programs, and the educators and families that are part of these programs, are acutely aware of this phase-out and are taking action to engage with the General Assembly. Action by the Illinois General Assembly during the fall 2023 veto session will be necessary to enable the program to continue to help Illinois students. Many comparable and neighboring states, including Indiana and Iowa, have enacted permanent scholarship tax credit laws.
- Chicago casino expected to open within weeks. The expected Chicago casino opening follows a determination of preliminary suitability by the Illinois Gaming Board, which will oversee the casino’s operations. The Gaming Board is supervising Bally’s, the firm that will operate the River North casino, as they refit their building. Bally’s is also actively hiring personnel to staff the casino floor. The temporary Bally’s Chicago casino is located in the historic Medinah Temple building in River North. After the Gaming Board watches the Medinah casino floor approach completion, the Gaming Board will consider granting an operating license to the Chicago gaming operation. The Board’s determination of preliminary suitability is not an operating license, but it is a major signal to Bally’s and its financial backers that the new casino is a creditworthy proposition as capital and personnel investment continues. The determination of preliminary suitability was announced on Thursday, June 15.
When the Chicago Bally’s casino floor opens for business, its machines and table games positions will create a new cash flow to help cover under-funded pension benefits for Chicago’s first responders – its police officers and firefighters. This will keep a promise made in 2019 when the General Assembly approved Chicago’s request to be a host city for a land-based casino. Another element of the 2019 plan is that a permanent casino complex, also to be operated by Bally’s, will be built at a different location near downtown Chicago. The permanent Chicago casino will have entertainment infrastructure and hotel hospitality space. The $2 billion casino complex will be built on the footprint of the former “Chicago Tribune Freedom Center” newspaper printing complex. Motor vehicle access and parking will be at Chicago Avenue and Halsted Street. As with the Medinah Temple temporary casino, the permanent Bally’s Chicago casino will generate a cash-flow stream to replenish Chicago police and firefighter pensions. Separate approval from the Illinois Gaming Board will be required to open the permanent casino complex. The permanent casino complex is expected to open in 2026.
- New terminal building space at Mid-America Airport. The passenger airport, which serves the Metro-East and the St. Louis metropolitan area, has ongoing service in 2023 to eleven airports within the Allegiant Air system. The 41,000-square-foot Mid-America terminal expansion adds two new boarding bridges and creates opportunities for other airlines to serve the more than one million residents who live in and around the Metro-East region.
The newly-added terminal space nearly doubles the size of the Mid-America terminal infrastructure. In planning the expansion, architects made it a priority to reduce security queues by creating a larger Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint space. Mid-America will now concentrate on developing a secure space adequate to meet U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) guidelines to greet planes coming in from outside the U.S. The ribbon was cut to open the new Mid-America terminal space on Tuesday, June 13.
- Chicago-to-St. Louis Amtrak train running times reduced by up to 30 minutes. The faster train schedule was announced this week and will go into effect on Monday, June 26. The reduction of up to 30 minutes in the running time of the Lincoln Service trains, which span most of Illinois’ length, reflects the fact that these trains can now travel at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour in some rural areas. This reflects a massive investment in track re-laying and safety upgrades that has spanned Illinois Departments of Transportation (IDOT) administrations operated by both political parties.