12 Key Issues to Watch as Illinois General Assembly's Spring Session Nears End

With the Illinois General Assembly's spring session nearing its traditional May 31 end, this is a good time for a check on what happened, what didn't and what still might happen on issues that made headlines this year.

BUDGET File this one under both the "what didn't happen" and "what still might happen" categories. It's old news now that Illinois has had no state budget since July 1, 2015, and that automatic and court-ordered spending has put the state on pace to end FY 2016 with a debt of $10 billion. That's because we're still spending as if our income tax rate is 25 percent higher than it actually is.

As FY 2017 approaches, groups of rank-and-file lawmakers have tried to make progress on a budget that covers FY 2017 while the General Assembly has passed stopgap bills to prevent disaster for public universities and human services providers, who had received no state money for most of FY 2016. Though details of a possible budget deal from a working group of lawmakers surfaced last week, Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan remain deadlocked.

At a meeting Tuesday, some tentative progress was made, with Madigan saying he would appoint members to a new non-budget-issues working group the governor requested. The translation here seems to be that Madigan told Rauner and other leaders he was open to changes on workers' compensation, a property tax freeze and pension reform, as evidenced by the tweet below from the Chicago Tribune's Monique Garcia:

Stay tuned. Until budget bills with the blessings of Rauner and Madigan appear, don't expect progress.

CHICAGO CASINO At an event in Wheeling Monday, Rauner continued to hold out hope for what he's calling a "grand bargain" or "grand compromise" and said he was open to signing legislation for a Chicago casino. Of course, gambling surfaces seemingly at the end of every session, but video gambling has been the only addition in many decades.

SCHOOL FUNDING The Illinois Senate on May 10 passed SB 231, a major overhaul of the way Illinois distributes state education funding. The bill is intended to funnel more state resources to school districts that can't raise sufficient funds through local property taxes. It's met resistance from lawmakers who represent districts that would lose state funding and from many Republicans who label it a bailout of Chicago Public Schools because it would send $175 million more to Chicago.

Its fate is uncertain in the House, where Madigan has convened his own task force on school funding reform.

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he wants school funding reform in which no districts lose money and he wants the General Assembly to send him an education budget based on the existing formula, as happened last year. But Senate Democrats could make their reform bill this year their do-or-die bargaining chip on the state budget.

HIGHER EDUCATION FUNDING An emergency stopgap funding bill on April 22 sent $600 million to public universities, community colleges and students who had been promised financial aid that never had been delivered. The emergency funding represented a 70 percent cut from FY 2015, when higher education received $1.95 billion. Rauner's budget proposal for FY 2017 calls for $1.75 billion.

How much, if any, of the missing funding from FY 2016 will be restored is one of the many questions surrounding budget talks.

SOCIAL SERVICES FUNDING Like higher education, social service providers received no state funding for most of FY 2016 even though they held contracts with the state for millions of dollars in work. The House and Senate on May 12 passed a bill to provide $700 million in emergency funding, but Rauner appears unlikely to sign it. He has said he wants a full budget rather than further stopgaps.

Meanwhile, a group of providers has filed suit against the state seeking $100 million in payments.

TAXES Though Rauner and Madigan consistently have said new tax revenue must be part of a budget solution, neither has advanced a plan to change the current income tax structure. In a City Club of Chicago speech in December, Madigan cryptically referred to a 5 percent personal income tax rate (the rate that was in effect from 2011-2015) as a possible starting point in budget talks: "You start there, you can go in whatever direction you want to go."

Rauner often says he'll work with Democrats on tax increases if they'll pass his reforms, but he hasn't tipped his hand on what the increases might be.

A plan sent to Rauner and the four legislative leaders last week suggested a 4.85 percent personal income tax rate. It also proposed applying the state sales tax to services (it now applies only to goods) and various other tax changes. As noted above, that plan means nothing until Rauner and Madigan sign off on it, which they have not done.

A House effort to pass a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax with higher rates for higher incomes was not called for a vote and is not eligible for the ballot again until 2018.

Here are the other six key issues to watch as the General Assembly's spring legislative session winds down.

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