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Illinois budget allows governor to spend billions in federal COVID-19 aid without legislative input

Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

When budgets are introduced just hours before a final vote, “you don’t see this kind of thing,” Demmer said. “And it turns out, they create this fund that really gives the governor authority to make multibillion-dollar decisions without any notification or input from the General Assembly.”

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Springfield until after the new year, and Democrats seldom need Republican votes to pass legislation.

But Demmer has introduced a proposal that would require the governor to inform legislative leaders in both parties before he spends money from the special fund and ultimately get approval from lawmakers for any outlay. The money would have to be repaid from the general fund if legislators don’t approve.

Pritzker’s plans for the additional $2 billion in spending were easy to overlook.

A June 21 document from the governor’s budget office breaks down $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief spending in the current year makes but no mention of the other money. Neither does the administration’s initial August report to the federal government on the state’s recovery plan.

“These reports focused on identified projects that will be funded by state fiscal recovery funds while other amounts are still preliminary,” Abudayyeh said in an emailed response to questions. “Additional reporting on expenditures of revenue replacement dollars will be provided to U.S. Treasury pursuant to their reporting requirements which are still evolving.”

 

There was a mention of “$2-$3 billion to replace lost revenues to the state to fund essential government services” in a news release from the governor’s office the day he enacted the spending plan.

The governor’s budget office also provides monthly reports on spending of the federal relief funds to the Legislative Budget Oversight Commission and testifies before the bipartisan panel quarterly.

Using a Treasury Department formula that takes into account pre-pandemic growth, the governor’s office determined the state revenues were roughly $3 billion less in 2020 than they would have been absent the coronavirus-induced slowdown, Abudayyeh said. The federal rules permit the state to use the relief money to make up for that lost revenue, as long as it’s spent on government services that are allowed in the American Rescue Plan.

States can’t use the relief money to pay off most debts or make deposits into pension plans — both major drawbacks for chronically cash-strapped Illinois.

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