Republican state lawmakers were almost entirely united in opposition to the Democratic-controlled General Assembly’s decisions on how to dole out $2.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money through the budget passed this spring.
The lone exception: state Rep. Bradley Stephens, who’s been mayor of Rosemont for 14 years and while a relative newcomer to the state legislature, showed he knows how to get things done in Springfield.
Stephens worked behind the scenes and across the aisle to secure a $15 million grant for the northwest suburb’s pandemic-battered convention center.
Stephens voted “present” on the budget, making him the only GOP lawmaker who didn’t vote against a $42 billion spending plan his party argued included a list of politically driven pork barrel projects doled out by a Democratic-controlled legislature that commandeered federal relief funds
Republicans said the money was handed out with few specifics, little public scrutiny and no real opportunity for the minority party to advocate for the needs of their constituents. GOP lawmakers were angry both about being denied the chance to make special requests for their districts and critical of a spending plan that uses federal coronavirus relief funding for programs that reflect Democratic priorities.
The expenditures include $250,000 for Black Lives Matter of Lake County, $500,000 for Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, and $4 million each for three commissions representing Asian, Latino and African American families. There also are millions of dollars to supplement and expand immigration integrations services.
Then there’s a list of infrastructure projects, from major flood control efforts in Lake County to wastewater treatment upgrades in Collinsville, near St. Louis, that skew toward areas represented by Democrats.
“We’re charged with being stewards of taxpayer dollars for the entire state of Illinois,” said Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon, a lead GOP budget negotiator. “We’re charged with setting public policy and making appropriate investments for the entire state of Illinois — not just for certain parts of the state that were represented by one party.”
Democrats counter that they’ve proceeded cautiously, drawing up plans for spending only a portion of the $8.1 billion in direct aid the state is receiving through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The money can be used to cover expenses through 2024, as long as they fall within the categories allowed under federal rules.
And Democrats point to a variety of items that will benefit residents all over Illinois, including $300 million for grants to small businesses hurt by the pandemic and $180 million to support hospitals, along with a variety of smaller grants for purposes such as violence prevention, after-school programs and local tourism agencies.
“That’s applicable to Republican cities and Republican towns and Democrat cities and Democrat towns across the state,” said House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat. “Most of the things that were in the budget are certainly statewide and nonpartisan issues of getting our economic engines back going, getting the hospitality business open, getting the arts, culture, museum, entertainment businesses, which are huge drivers of employment, back open.”
With more than $5 billion remaining to be spent from the federal relief pot, there’s ample time to take care of other needs across the state, Harris said.
When Congress approved the American Rescue Plan this spring, it created a unique set of opportunities — and challenges — for cash-strapped Illinois.
The influx of $8.1 billion in direct aid to the state — not to mention an additional $5.9 billion for local governments, $5 billion for schools, nearly $1.9 billion for mass transit and airports, and other dedicated funds — was welcome for a state that has long struggled to balance its budget.
But the money comes with strings attached that prevent it from being used to address some of the state’s most vexing financial problems. It can’t be used to shore up underfunded pensions, for example, or — to the chagrin of state officials who initially made plans to use it to pay back the Federal Reserve for emergency coronavirus relief loans taken out last year — to repay debts.
At the same time, the Democrats who crafted the budget said they were careful not to create ongoing spending obligations with a one-time pot of money, a measure of prudence favorably noted by the two Wall Street ratings agencies that have upgraded the state’s credit as a result of this year’s budget.
“That’s why you saw the bond rating upgrades happen because we did not build the federal dollars into base spending,” said state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago, who leads budget talks for the Senate Democrats.
The $2.8 billion in federal relief funds allocated for the budget year that began July 1 breaks down into two broad categories: $1 billion for infrastructure projects and $1.8 billion for other operations, from support for hospitals to targeted grants like the one for Rosemont’s convention center.
Some Republicans worry that Illinois cannot afford to be pouring funds into what they see as nonessential Democratic programs when the state has other pressing needs, including a $5 billion hole in its unemployment insurance trust fund.
Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, the Senate GOP’s point man on budget matters, also questioned how some projects could get funding when he sees the state as underfunding programs for disabled children and other priorities.
“It shows the arrogance of the supermajority Democrats to just think that no one pays attention and that people back home won’t look at it,” Rose said.
What’s more, Rose said, GOP lawmakers in the Senate only got a chance to see the budget 15 minutes before Democrats called it for a vote.
“That’s no way to run a government,” Rose said. “In fact, it is banana republic-type nonsense.”
When Democratic leaders introduced the 3,000-plus-page budget on the last day of the spring legislative session, Republicans were surprised to see coronavirus relief money was being devoted to infrastructure projects, though that’s clearly allowed under rules from the U.S. Treasury Department.
“This is probably the most complicated budget year we’ve ever had,” the GOP’s Demmer said. “The debts, these short-term borrowing things, the federal funds — all of this kind of stuff weighed on top of it. This seems to be the most complicated year, and at the same time, it’s also the budget year where we’ve gotten the absolute least amount of information from either the majority party or the governor’s office.”
Of the $1 billion in COVID-19 relief funds going to broadband, sewer, water and flooding projects, about $425 million will be used to pay off bonds on previous construction projects that are eligible under the federal rules. Another $300 million will be given out for broadband expansion, though the details have yet to be announced.
The remaining $275 million will be spent on a laundry list of projects in areas represented in part or entirely by Democrats in Springfield, from $80,000 for a water main replacement on 126th Street in south suburban Calumet Park to more than $122 million for stormwater projects across Lake County.
Officials in the north suburban county say they worked with Democratic lawmakers in Springfield to secure funding for projects that have been on their wish list going on three decades.
“We’ve been planning for large flood mitigation infrastructure projects for 30 years, really,” said Kurt Woolford, executive director of the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission. “Our agency’s 30th anniversary is this year, and we’ve never had this level of funding to address the needs for the county’s stormwater management system.”
Major flooding during the summer of 2017 “really opened our eyes to the level of the damage” that can result from the increasing rainfall the area has experienced over the past decade, Woolford said.
One of the top priorities is addressing severe flooding problems at Dady Slough between Park City and Waukegan in the watershed of the North Branch of the Chicago River.
“It’s a low-income, disadvantaged community, and many residents experience routine flooding that impacts their lives,” Woolford said. “The project that we are planning to implement will not only reduce the flooding but it will add additional benefits and open space for the community to enjoy, such as a new high-quality wetland.”
While they don’t dispute the need for many such projects, some Republicans question whether it’s the best use of the federal relief money, arguing that the record $45 billion infrastructure program Gov. J.B. Pritzker championed two years ago would be a better source of funding for local projects than the pandemic relief funds coming in from Washington.
Exactly how some of the money will be spent is difficult to decipher from the text in the budget.
Take, for example, four $800,000 grants flowing through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to three schools and one South Side hospital “for purposes allowed by Section 9901 of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and any associated federal guidance.”
Spokeswoman Cristin Evans said the agency “did not select any of the line itemized recipients and does not have the statutory authority to engage in that process.” Instead, all of the spending was selected and approved by lawmakers.
One of those grants is going to Amelia Earhart Elementary School in the Calumet Heights community area on the Far South Side, in Sim’s Senate district.
The school’s principal didn’t respond to a request for comment on the funding, but Sims said Earhart was one of a number of “projects and programs where individuals identified priorities within their respective communities.”
“Earhart, like a number of other schools, (has) amazing violence reduction and prevention programs, and they do tremendous work in making sure that communities stay safe, that we invest in communities,” Sims said.
A much larger chunk of money — $50 million — will go out through the Criminal Justice Information Authority grant process to other organizations for violence prevention efforts, Sims said.
In Champaign-Urbana, Democratic Rep. Carol Ammons is bringing home more than $1 million in federal funding for community service, violence prevention and job training programs, with $700,000 going to the Independent Media Center in Urbana and another $350,000 going to the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club in Champaign.
Ammons said she’s been requesting funds through the state budget for these organizations for several years.
“I’m advocating for the grassroots organizations that are trying to do community service work,” Ammons said.
Like Chicago and other cities, “we have a huge uptick in violence in our community that needs to be addressed,” she said.
If Republicans feel like similar priorities in their communities have gone unaddressed in the first round of funding from the last federal coronavirus relief package, Sims said, the onus is on them to be more productive partners in the budget process.
“When you come to the table in a meaningful way, you’re able to identify and outline those priorities,” Sims said. “That’s how they end up in the budget. But if you don’t identify them and don’t come to the table to talk about that, it’s hard to know what your priorities are.”
Republicans, on the other hand, contended they were not given a true opportunity to tap into the money Democrats scooped up for local projects and programs.
“There’s no other way to put it: It was a feeding frenzy made possible by the Biden bucks,” Rose said.
The federal relief program allows money to be spent on certain infrastructure projects and social service programs, but amid an ongoing pandemic, a significant portion of the focus remains on the health care system.
The budget funnels a share of the state’s federal coronavirus money to hospitals in a few different ways.
There’s $180 million to be distributed through the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, with $30 million set aside for safety net hospitals that serve large numbers of Medicaid patients. But the details of how those funds will be distributed haven’t been worked out.
In addition, a group of 14 hospitals — mostly in Chicago and largely in South and West side areas hit hard by the pandemic — that care for patients in the state’s Medicaid managed care program are receiving grants ranging from $1 million to $4.2 million, totaling $37.7 million.
Demmer, who in his day job is director of innovation and strategy at Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital in Dixon, objected, as he has in past budget debates, to certain hospitals receiving direct funding without stringent accountability measures in place.
“It’s really, I think, a misallocation of our funds,” Demmer said. “We recognize and we should recognize the important role that safety net hospitals play in serving underserved communities and in serving people in the Medicaid program.
“But we have worked together in a bipartisan collaborative way to establish programs specifically to support those hospitals but also to hold them accountable — to make them identify the needs of their community, to set up actual metrics in delivering what they say they are going to deliver.”
One of the hospitals receiving a direct $3.2 million grant is Loretto Hospital in the Austin community area, which stirred controversy earlier this year by giving COVID-19 vaccinations to people with connections to the hospital who were not eligible for shots at a time when vaccines were still in limited supply.
But Harris, the House majority leader and top budget negotiator, said taxpayers should rest assured that the federal funds will be spent appropriately.
State agencies are taking their time to craft rules for how the wide variety of grants will be distributed, and there will be an extra level of scrutiny from the federal government to make sure the rules are followed.
“There’s that sort of double-check on it,” Harris said. “But my sense from what I know of how the departments are implementing this is that they’re moving very carefully.”
Despite the concerns he shared with his fellow GOP lawmakers, Stephens, the Rosemont mayor and state representative, took a practical approach when it came time to vote on the budget.
“I couldn’t vote ‘yes’ because I wasn’t really crazy about the process,” Stephens said. “It seemed like the Republicans were not as involved as we could have, should have been. But I wasn’t going to be two-faced and vote ‘no’ and then reap the benefit for part of my district and my community.”