State lawmakers seek more than $41B in federal coronavirus aid — including $10B pension bailout

State lawmakers seek more than $41B in federal coronavirus aid — including $10B pension bailout

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, pictured last month at the opening of a sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon says the shutdown could undo the progress the cash-strapped state has made in improving its financial footing.

Illinois Senate Democrats are asking the federal government for more than $41 billion in federal aid — about a quarter of it for a pension fund bailout — to keep the state financially afloat as the coronavirus pandemic continues to slash revenues across the board.

A letter from Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, addressed to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, went out Tuesday to Illinois’ entire congressional delegation — a day before Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the economic shutdown would result in an estimated $2.7 billion revenue shortfall in the state’s current budget.

“I realize I’ve asked for a lot, but this is an unprecedented situation, and we face the reality that there likely will be additional, unanticipated costs that could result in future requests for assistance,” Harmon wrote on behalf of the state senate Democratic caucus.

Harmon’s federal wish list for the second phase of federal coronavirus relief includes $15 billion in block grant funding to shore up the state’s spending plans for this fiscal year and the next two.

The Oak Park Democrat also asked for $10 billion for the state’s desperately underfunded pension plans.

The Illinois Republican Party slammed that request on Twitter, accusing Democrats of “brazenly using a global pandemic as an excuse to ask the [federal government] to bail them out of the fiscal disaster they manufactured over the last two decades.”

Harmon also wants $9.6 billion for local governments, $6 billion for Illinois’ overloaded unemployment insurance system and $1 billion in public health support for “historically underserved communities,” apparently referring to African American communities that have suffered a disproportionate brunt of the state’s COVID-19 deaths and cases overall.

Illinois received about $2.7 billion in federal aid for costs related to the pandemic as part of the initial Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which also sent about $2.2 billion to local municipalities.

“So far, the federal relief targeted costs directly related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Harmon said through a spokesman Saturday. “The massive negative effects to state and local economies across this country have not been addressed and need to be.”

The amounts asked for are based on the work staff and senators have done, past budgets, budget requests, conversations with local officials and university research, according to Harmon’s office.

Harmon’s spokesman said the letter was shared with Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, though they weren’t directly involved in drafting it.

At the governor’s daily coronavirus briefing Saturday, Pritzker distanced himself from Harmon’s requests, saying he “was not aware of the content of the letter” before it was sent.

“There’s no reason why a senate president in Illinois can’t send a letter to the delegation. I don’t object to people communicating with our federal representatives. I do it all the time,” Pritzker said.

“It’s different than what I have been talking to the federal representatives about,” he continued. “I really believe the state’s need to have some unencumbered dollars that come in that will help us will the coming year’s budget — every state has this problem.”

In a statement, Pritzker’s office said: “We’re working with our congressional delegation, as well as [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer, to ensure another aid package includes funds for the state of Illinois and the flexibility to use them in our budget.”

Read Harmon’s letter:

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