Passing a state budget is arguably the most important thing the Illinois General Assembly does every year — or at least should do every year.
After last year's drama — when a two-year standoff ended with a Republican revolt against Governor Bruce Rauner — it's an open question about how things will go this year.
So I set out to answer a simple question: Will there be another impasse?
The question may sound simple, but the answer, like most things in state government, is complicated.
Lawmakers took a long break from Springfield, for the primary election and the usual recess around Easter and Passover.
As session resumed this week, I've been asking everyone I can: "Do you think there's going to be another budget impasse this year?"
"That is the question," says state Sen. Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet.
"'No' is the short answer to your question," Rose says. "But I think the next question you should ask is: 'Will it be a 12-month budget?' And I'm less convinced of that."
Rose and some of his Republican colleagues have been repeating this message — accusing Democrats of wanting only a short-term spending plan. The idea, Republicans say, is that Democrats hope to retake the governor’s mansion this fall, then pass the kind of wild tax hikes and spending that Republicans say Democrats would love to do.
The thing is, when you ask actual Democrats if they'd prefer a half-year budget, they too are speaking in one voice.
"No. We've been consistent in saying we need a full-year budget," says Rep. Greg Harris. He's from Chicago, and he's one of the House Democrats' top budget negotiators.
"I don't know why the Republicans keep fantasizing about a six-month budget, but they do," Harris says. "Maybe it's wishful thinking on their part. I don't know."
It’s worth pausing here to remember this is not just a political fight.
People who are outside the Capitol Building have been trekking in to remind legislators of the dire consequences in the last budget stalemate. And they’re warning that could happen again if there’s no agreement this year.
Among the institutions most hammered were Illinois' public universities. At a recent Senate budget hearing, University of Illinois vice president Barbara Wilson talked about a faculty brain drain linked to the impasse.
"You may know that we've become a little bit of a poaching ground for many of our peer institutions, who have noticed our reputational hit and have come after a lot of our talented faculty," Wilson says.
U. of I. has even learned of schools allocating money to specifically target U. of I. professors.
"We know for a fact that Texas — and I include Texas A&M and the University of Texas — have a special fund set aside to go poach Illinois faculty," Wilson says. "We've been told that by numerous individuals, including some of the faculty they're going after."
Other state universities say the lack of state funding — and not just during the impasse — has left buildings crumbling.
"In my 11 years as the president, I haven't seen any money for repairs,” says Elaine Maimon of Governors State University, in the south suburbs of Chicago.
Despite that, she says GSU cannot wait to repair its roofs. So it'll have to issue bonds to raise the money it needs — but even that is contingent.
"We've been told, loud and clear, if there's no state budget by May 31st, we're not going to have that avenue," Maimon says. "So there has to be a state budget."
Which brings us back to the question we started with: Will there be a state budget this year — or another impasse?
I thought the last word on the subject should go to one of the people instrumental in ending the last impasse: state Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights.
"I don't believe we'll have an impasse," Harris says. "I believe that by the end of this session, we'll have a budget for the new fiscal year."
Harris was among the 16 Republicans who broke with Gov. Rauner to help Democrats raise taxes, pass a spending plan, and end the impasse.
He says the dynamics have changed from last year. Because of that vote to raise taxes, this time no legislator will have to make that politically difficult choice. And Harris points out that the governor's own budget proposal counts on money from that tax increase.
So, with seven weeks to go in the spring legislative session, the consensus under the dome seems to be that no, there will not be another impasse.
Then again, a few years ago no one predicted Illinois would go years without a budget, and we know how that story ended.
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