CHICAGO — During the brief debate over a $42 billion state spending plan introduced in the closing hours of this year’s spring session, the Illinois Legislature’s Democratic majority outlined less than $3 billion in spending in the coming year from a massive infusion of federal coronavirus relief money.
With the state in line to receive $8.1 billion from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Democrats said they wanted to spend the money judiciously and avoid creating programs that would continue to demand funding after the one-time federal cash influx was gone. They said this year’s plan for the relief money called for $1 billion in infrastructure spending, with the remainder going to items such as hospitals, violence prevention, and tourism and business recovery.
Left unmentioned as lawmakers were approving the budget, however, was the creation of a state fund that gives Gov. J.B. Pritzker authority to spend billions of dollars from the federal aid without first getting approval from lawmakers.
In the end, the state’s spending plan for the budget year that began July 1 counts on using at least another $2 billion from the pandemic relief funds to make up for “lost revenues,” leaving less than $3.6 billion to budget out over the next three years.
The Pritzker administration says the governor is allowed to unilaterally dip into the large pool of money under federal rules that weren’t yet finalized as lawmakers were approving the budget.
Using the funds this way also is necessary in efforts to put the state’s finances on a stable long-term trajectory as Illinois emerges from the pandemic, the administration says, noting that its financial maneuvers have led to credit upgrades from two Wall Street ratings agencies and an improved outlook from a third.
Allowing the governor to tap into the money without an appropriation by lawmakers ensured “flexibility for the state to adapt to the rules as understanding of them evolved over the course of the year,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.
But members of the General Assembly’s Republican minority are calling for greater transparency and more input from lawmakers on how the money is spent.
After the Democrats’ final budget plan was introduced May 31, there was no discussion in committee or on the House floor about creating a fund that would allow Pritzker to spend a portion of the federal money without an appropriation from the Legislature, said state Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, a lead budget negotiator for the House GOP.
Neither was the provision mentioned in an even briefer debate before the Senate voted on the budget package in the early morning hours of June 1.