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More than six months after Springfield lawmakers hurriedly passed Illinois’ $42 billion annual budget in the dead of night, a Chicago Tribune analysis has uncovered a secret slush fund giving Gov. J.B. Pritzker the authority to spend $2 billion in federal aid without approval from the General Assembly.

State lawmakers who were given mere hours to review the 4,000-page Democratic spending proposal before the vote June 1 said the majority failed to mention the hidden provision. The budget debates were deliberately limited in the House and Senate by again delivering the massive document at the last minute, a practice perfected by former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

Members of the Republican minority have demanded greater transparency and input in how the coronavirus relief dollars are spent. A lead GOP budget negotiator, state Rep. Tom Demmer, called the move “a shell game” and is pushing for legislative approval before Pritzker spends the money.

Pritzker said the $2 billion in discretionary spending is necessary to stabilize state finances and “lost revenues.” The governor needs the “flexibility” to adapt to changing federal rules on relief spending by circumventing lengthy discussion in the General Assembly.

But why the governor waited until six months after the vote to make his case rather than during the public debate 0n how pandemic relief dollars should be spent harkens back to the Madigan-era adage about governing in Illinois: negotiate in secret, vote when it is too late for opposition.

Pritzker’s plan for the additional $2 billion was easy to overlook as a report from the governor’s budget office breaking down the use of COVID-19 relief spending neglected to mention the slush fund. It was also missing from the administration’s August report to the federal government on the state’s recovery plan.

While states are prohibited from using federal relief dollars to pay down debts or make pension payments, the funds can be used to make up for revenue lost because of the pandemic if spent on government services allowed in the American Rescue Plan.

Budgeting the more than $2 billion in coronavirus aid to cover allowable expenses frees up other money to pay down debts for which the federal funds cannot be used. The state consequently expects to use this money to pay down $1.9 billion in federal and state loans rather than direct the money to support struggling Illinoisans.

Demmer said the additional funds will prevent Democrats from needing to cut state spending or hold off on repaying debts. It will leave less than $3.6 billion in relief dollars to budget out during the next three years.

State lawmakers giving Pritzker autonomy over $2 billion should come as little surprise. After all, they’ve allowed him unilateral emergency powers for 665 consecutive days.

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