LA GRANGE – Gov. Bruce Rauner and other Republicans said Monday that bipartisan groups of Illinois lawmakers are making progress on changes Rauner has said are essential to any agreement on a long-overdue state budget. But a compromise to end a nearly yearlong impasse between the GOP and majority Democrats remains elusive as the Legislature approaches a critical end-of-the-month deadline.
The governor and House GOP leader Jim Durkin said rank-and-file legislators, meeting behind closed doors, are finding common ground on how to make Illinois’ workers’ compensation insurance program less expensive for businesses – a key Republican priority.
They said there’s also been movement on property tax relief and changing the way state and local governments buy items, which Rauner has said could save millions annually. Durkin, of Western Springs, said there could be a report “very soon” on possible workers’ compensation legislation.
“All of those are alive and well right now in these last few weeks,” Durkin said during a stop at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, where he and Rauner discussed school funding.
Illinois is in its 11th month without a state budget. Rauner has said he won’t approve a tax increase to close a multibillion-dollar deficit unless Democrats who control the General Assembly approve measures – such as changes to workers’ compensation – that he says will make Illinois more appealing to business and create jobs.
Top Democrats have said they won’t allow any changes that would hurt middle-class families or the state’s vulnerable residents. Without a budget, universities and social service agencies have suffered. Schools are warning that if the impasse continues into the next school year, some of them could be forced to close.
The Legislature has until the end of May to approve a budget for this year and the new fiscal year, which starts July 1, by a simple majority. After that, it takes a three-fifths vote to pass a spending plan, making it considerably more difficult to achieve.
The lawmakers meeting without their leaders to consider solutions have been willing to offer up few specifics on the discussions.
But Republican state Rep. Patricia Bellock, of Hinsdale, said she’s part of a committee that has been meeting for several hours a day to go through budget items line by line. The group, which has backing from legislative leaders and Rauner, could publicly detail areas of agreement as soon as this week, she said.
“They are full force working on trying to come up with the budget. ...” Bellock told the City Club of Chicago during a panel discussion on the state budget. “I haven’t seen that in a year and a half.”
State Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill who is part of another group looking at issues such as school funding and workers’ compensation, acknowledged “general progress” and positive discussions in recent weeks, but said there’s been a lack of clarity about what Rauner wants.
“If we had a better idea of what his position was, we could attempt to try and find a compromise,” he said Monday after the City Club event. “The test of progress is going to be this: Is the governor going to drop his turnaround agenda in order to allow the Legislature to have an honest debate about a budget?”
Manar is pushing a school funding formula overhaul he said could help lead toward a budget solution and intends to have it called for a vote this week.
Rauner on Monday repeated his criticism that the plan would hurt schools in suburban Chicago and is a “bail out” for Chicago Public Schools. Manar says that’s not true, and that his plan is more fair because it treats CPS the same as other school districts by covering teacher pension costs.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the rank-and-file groups of lawmakers meet “in secret” so he can’t assess their progress, but he said it was a positive sign that they continue to meet.
Lawmakers return to session in Springfield on Tuesday.