SPRINGFIELD — Democrats who control the Illinois legislature on Tuesday continued searching for common ground on issues ranging from temporary tax relief to crime as the clock winds down on a truncated spring session.
In what’s become a daily occurrence in the run-up to Friday’s scheduled adjournment, a group of Democratic lawmakers trotted out another anti-crime proposal — this time aimed at carjackings — as they continue pushing back on the Republicans’ election-year message that the majority party goes easy on those who break the law.
Democrats promised to be back Wednesday with yet another proposal as compromise is sought between House and Senate, as well as between the majority party’s progressive and moderate wings.
Lawmakers also continued negotiating over how to meet — or possibly exceed — Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s call for $1 billion in temporary tax relief to soften the blow of record inflation as part of a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.
At the same time, business groups and labor unions have yet to reach an agreement on how to fill the remaining $1.8 billion hole in the state’s pandemic-depleted unemployment insurance trust fund. That’s another issue Democrats would like to resolve before heading home to campaign in newly drawn districts ahead of the June 28 primary election.
Crime and budget issues are closely linked as Democrats make plans for a rare projected surplus while also proposing anti-crime measures that would require more money from the state.
With Republicans using a criminal justice overhaul Pritzker signed last year to paint him and fellow Democrats as anti-law enforcement, the governor said Tuesday that his party is “working very hard to protect our police.”
“That’s probably the most important thing we can do is to protect our police, to build up their ranks, to make sure that they’re properly funded, to make sure that they get the equipment that they need, that they get the body cameras that they have requested, to make sure that we have the cameras, for example, on the highways that’ll help us catch the perpetrators who are shooting on the highways,” Pritzker said at an unrelated bill-signing event in his statehouse office.
“So there’s much to do here, but we are making progress, and I think before the end of this session, over the next several days, you’re going to see even more.”
Tuesday’s carjacking proposal came in the form of two measures. One, from Sens. Robert Martwick of Chicago and Michael Hastings of south suburban Frankfort, would allow cooperative groups of law enforcement agencies to target carjackings, with additional support from state grants. The other, from progressive Sens. Robert Peters and Omar Aquino, both of Chicago, would relieve carjacking victims of having to pay red-light camera tickets or towing fees racked up on a vehicle after it’s stolen.
Republican Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove said the proposals “do very little to move the needle on this very serious issue.”
“They simply just add bureaucracy and taxpayer dollars to this epidemic and do nothing to actually hold offenders accountable for their actions,” Curran said in a statement. “If we really want to get serious on crime, we need to start having real conversations about ways to deter this kind of activity.”
Hastings pushed back against GOP criticism of Democratic anti-crime efforts.
“It’s a shame they don’t care about carjackings,” he said during a statehouse news conference. “Carjackings happen in their community too.”
According to the Chicago Police Department, there were 1,852 reported carjackings in the city in 2021, more than triple the number two years earlier.
Democrats over the last year endorsed more holistic, community-based approaches to fighting crime, evidenced by their allocations of millions of dollars to violence prevention groups that employ ex-felons to mediate street conflicts and connect victims and perpetrators of violence with mental health therapy, job training and other social services.
Republicans have repeatedly blamed the rise in violence in Chicago and other cities across the state on policies favored by the other side of the aisle.
But in recent weeks, there’s been a rift between some moderate and progressive Democrats in the General Assembly on crime issues, highlighted by the Senate’s rejection of Pritzker’s choices for the Prisoner Review Board. Some Democrats have sought to get behind the kind of tough-on-crime policies traditionally favored by the GOP.
The House early Tuesday evening voted 95-5 to approve a measure that would create a new state fund to help recruit and retain officers and lower the retirement age for some Illinois State Police employees, among other steps aimed at addressing law enforcement staffing issues.
It’s unclear how the measure, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Dave Vella of Rockford, will fare in the Senate or whether it will be part of a larger Democratic proposal.
Republicans largely voted in favor of the legislation to avoid “no” votes being used against them in an election year, but nonetheless were critical.
“This isn’t state government — this is an apology,” Republican Rep. Andrew Chesney of Freeport, who voted for the bill, told Democrats during the debate. “You are suffering from political amnesia because your policies hurt people, and now, you want a redo.”
Meanwhile, a lead negotiator on unemployment insurance funding said, as of Tuesday afternoon, business and labor groups weren’t “on the same page” after Pritzker last month signed a measure to use $2.7 billion in federal coronavirus relief money to wipe out part of a $4.5 billion debt. Taking care the remaining deficit would require a tax increase on business, a cut to unemployment benefits, or some combination of the two.
State Rep. Marcus Evans, a Chicago Democrat, blamed the lack of an agreement in part on the condensed legislative calendar.
“The timeline is throwing off everything,” Evans said. “They’re still just not there. Labor does not want to sacrifice benefits. And business, they don’t want to bear the load that they’ve done in the past all on their own only taking increases.”
When asked whether he thinks a deal could be done by Friday, Evans said, “we’re just putting the work in every day.”