PritzkerJB_09092020

Gov. JB Pritzker visited Illinois State University to address the importance of participating in the 2020 Census on Sept. 9.

State agencies have been ordered to identify steep budget cuts that can be made if Congress fails to come through with more COVID-19 relief money.

At a Chicago news conference on Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker said he is ordering state agencies under his control to identify 5% cuts that can be made to the current state spending plan and 10% cuts that can be made to the budget that lawmakers will pass next year.

"We've reached a critical juncture for our own state finances in this COVID-induced financial crisis," Pritzker said. "I can promise you that for everyone and anyone who got into public service, who actually wants to serve the public, this is a nightmare scenario."

Over the objections of Republican lawmakers, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed a budget in May that relies on an influx of additional federal pandemic relief money in order to be balanced. So far, though, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have not been able to agree on an aid package to provide relief to financially troubled states and municipalities.

"This isn't just about local governments in Illinois," Pritzker said. "This is about support for state and local governments across the nation. Without that support, our nation's schools, hospitals, universities, law enforcement, health care workers and firefighters will pay the price, and it will be a heavy price."

Although state agencies are being directed to find savings in the current budget, many local governments will be affected if additional federal aid doesn't come, Pritzker said, particularly police and fire departments. He said that when all of the cities and counties affected by the lack of relief money are included, "We are literally talking about thousands of people who will get laid off.

"I can't tell you what the exact number would be," he said. "Certainly many cities, counties, even the state, start by looking at furloughs. You don't want to have to permanently lay people off, but you start with furloughs and then look at the deeper cuts that come with that. Five percent is not a small number."

Pritzker said that if Congress doesn't act by the end of September, "then we're going to have to start seriously looking at all of these cuts and implementing the beginnings of what it would take."

He did not say just when all of the cuts would be implemented. The current state fiscal year runs until June 30.

Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said that both Pritzker and former Gov. Bruce Rauner asked agencies to identify potential budget cuts, so the action is nothing new.

"The bigger thing is what happens when we get around to actually crafting the budget," he said. "We passed the largest budget in Illinois history this year without a serious effort at looking at reforms or trying to rein in spending that also relies on $5 billion in borrowing from the Federal Reserve. I understand the governor is probably trying to put some pressure on the feds to get some sort of relief package, but that's going to get worked out at the federal level."

Butler said Pritzker should focus on resolving ongoing problems at the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which remains a major source of complaints among his constituents.

Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, said the move isn't surprising.

"We said from the beginning of the budget conversation this year that passing a budget that relies on borrowing from the federal government and has a built-in budget deficit in the middle of a pandemic and is the biggest budget in state history is irresponsible," Bourne said. "I'm not surprised that they're now seeing that their numbers aren't working out."

Bourne also said that Pritzker asked agencies to identify cuts earlier this year and that those weren't incorporated into the budget.

Pritzker said the end of September is significant because Congress is expected to recess then until after the November election. However, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday the U.S. House would remain in session until a new coronavirus relief package is approved.

Pritzker made the announcement of possible cuts coming to state government even as he said the state will take applications for $220 million in grants to small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will begin taking applications for the second round of Business Interruption Grants on Thursday afternoon. The grants are intended to provide assistance to businesses whose operations were negatively affected by the pandemic.

A major focus for the second round of grants will be on downstate businesses. This round will include $60 million for heavily distressed industries like movie houses, concert venues, amusement parks, banquet halls and hotels, $70 million for disproportionately distressed areas, $100 million specifically for downstate and rural communities, and $5 million for livestock operations disrupted by the pandemic. There is also $25 million available under a separate program to help businesses damaged during civil unrest.

Application information is available at Illinois.gov/dceo.

Contact Doug Finke: doug.finke@sj-r.com, 788-1527, twitter.com/dougfinkesjr

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(c)2020 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

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