RICH MILLER: Speaker Welch picks up ugly win with state budget

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Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch gave added meaning to the phrase “winning ugly” during last Wednesday’s early morning hours.

I’ve never seen anything like it, so let’s take a look.

House members were told to be in their seats by noon on Tuesday after the Senate had easily passed the entire budget package on Sunday.

But the House session was delayed for endless hours as rumors swirled about a “mini revolt” against the budget deal struck by Gov. JB Pritzker, Senate President Don Harmon and Speaker Welch. Some of the more fiscally moderate Democrats objected to the budget’s level of spending and particularly the revenue proposals, much of which they did not support as stand-alone proposals.

The House Speaker has an unwritten rule that no bill can move forward without 60 House Democratic votes. But many of the revenue-enhancing proposals that Speaker Welch agreed to with Gov. JB Pritzker and Senate President Don Harmon did not have that level of support. So some of the “mods” were quite grumpy.

The appropriations bill passed with 65 House Democratic votes, with seven Democrats voting against it. The budget implementation bill passed with a more narrow 62-vote margin with eight Democrats voting against it and two progressives taking a walk.

After a bill eliminating the grocery tax passed with 86 votes and three Democrats voting “No,” the time came for what turned out to be the main attraction: The revenue omnibus bill.

Democratic Rep. Fred Crespo, who had earlier voted for the spending bill, warned his colleagues about massive spending pressures next year. “We have a moral obligation to look after taxpayers,” Crespo said, telling members to “vote your conscience.” He voted against it.

At one point during the debate, the Republicans requested a verification of the roll call, meaning that all members who voted for the bill had to be in the chamber. That request clearly caught the super-majority by surprise. Several Democrats were against this bill, and the HDems were missing five people, two of whom were members of Welch’s leadership team and one of those (Rep. Aaron Ortiz) had skipped town without telling anyone. Plus they had some political targets to protect from a potentially controversial tax hike vote.

“Well, it is 3:36 in the morning in the last week of May,” sponsoring Rep. Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park), who is retiring at the end of her term, said during her closing remarks after a grueling hour of debate. “And I gotta tell ya’ I’m not gonna miss this.”

Little did she know.

Rep. Burke’s concurrence motion received 60 votes, with twelve House Democrats voting against it (including Crespo). That’s when everyone realized that Rep. Ortiz had left town, so he was verified off the roll call and the bill didn’t have enough votes to pass.

Over strenuous Republican objections, Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, who had voted “No,” moved to reconsider the vote. That motion carried with 67 votes (these parliamentary votes generally rely heavily on party unity). The second try at a concurrence motion received 60 votes, but the Republicans played the old fake-out game and had one of their own (Rep. Randy Frese) vote “Yes.”

Numerous sources said Democratic Rep. Larry Walsh was supposed to vote for the bill, but he apparently saw the total hit 60 on the big board and stayed at “No.”

Oops.

After much delay, Rep. Frese was verified off the roll call and the motion failed again. House rules barred any more motions. Two concurrence motions is the limit. The bill should’ve been dead. But the Democrats then decided to just go ahead and suspend their own rule. Republicans were incensed, but Rep. Gong Gershowitz again moved to reconsider the vote, which passed 62-42. And then Rep. Walsh finally voted for the third concurrence motion and it passed 60-47, more than two hours after debate began at 4:30 in the morning.

House Republican Floor Leader Patrick Windhorst is probably the most even-keeled person in the House, but he let loose. “I think it should be clear to everyone in this state what this super majority is willing to do to ram a tax increase down the throats of the citizens of Illinois at 4:30 in the morning,” Windhorst said, his voice eventually rising to a shout. “Three votes! Three votes!”

Give Speaker Welch credit for persistence. He was duty-bound to pass this package. Failure could’ve been catastrophic for him. But you really gotta wonder if he could’ve possibly mollified a few more of his members before he locked in that budget deal.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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