Illinois lawmakers thought their budget nightmare would end with a Fourth of July vote for a $36 billion spending plan. But for many of them, a different ordeal was about to unfold.
Their votes this week to approve a new budget — after a fiscal stalemate that made the state a national disgrace for the past two years — have sparked a firestorm of vitriol, with so many Republican legislators reporting receiving threatening communications that the GOP state House leader’s office sent its lawmakers a memo Wednesday on how to protect themselves.
One legislator was called a “f—-ing animal.” Another was told he’d be “hanging from a tree.”
“You are selling your soul to the devil,” said a message to GOP House floor Leader Steven Andersson, who reported receiving a steady flow of abusive text messages and calls — including a death threat. “I’m coming for you,” it said. Now the Illinois State Police are investigating.
The rage unleashed by the vote serves as a reminder of the combustibility of the current political atmosphere, one where a tax increase to avoid a fiscal catastrophe — combined with the perception of partisan betrayal — could set off such an explosive response.
Andersson is one of 15 Republican lawmakers who crossed over and voted for a Democratic budget that raises income taxes as part of a package aimed at ending the two-year budget impasse.
As the state entered its third fiscal year without a budget on July 1, lawmakers faced tremendous pressure to avoid a junk rating downgrade after two of the state’s most powerful politicians — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic state House Speaker Michael Madigan — engaged in a protracted political war that created unprecedented gridlock.
Against that highly-charged and highly-partisan backdrop lawmakers cast votes for a controversial package that includes a 32 percent increase (from 3.75 to 4.95) of the state income tax.
It didn’t take long for the anger to bubble over into sputtering, unfiltered rage.
“You my dear, are a f—ing animal. 32%! You stupid b—-,” one person spat at Democratic state Rep. Litesa Wallace over Facebook.
The words “tax increase” appear to have caught many voters off guard. Unlike in New Jersey, where a full government shutdown happened immediately after lawmakers missed a midnight deadline Saturday to enact a new state budget, Illinois had shielded much of the public from what was happening. Despite not having a budget since 2015, Illinois schools remained open, state workers got paid, road construction churned along and drivers could get their licenses renewed.
The most hard-hit residents were the neediest — those who relied on social services or agencies that provide help to seniors, assistance to the developmentally disabled, housing to the poor, drug treatment or domestic violence counseling — because the stop-gap spending plans the state kept passing gave limited money to items that lawmakers cherry picked.
As the public began to tune in the dramatic showdown in the final hours, they learned that not only was there a tax increase, it was passed with the help of a significant number of Republicans who crossed over to vote with the Democratic majority.
Some groups applauded those Republicans for showing bipartisanship and "courage" in their votes. But then there were lawmakers like state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, one of the Republicans who supported the Democratic budget. He reported receiving “threats of hanging from a tree and things like that,” after his vote.
“I’ve talked to a lot of my constituents, and after I explain, they understand,” Davidsmeyer told the Springfield State Journal-Register. “There’s a lot of people from outside of my district that are upset.”
The public pushback comes even as Illinois is inches from sliding into the financial abyss, weighed down by $15 billion in unpaid bills, a court order mandating large-scale Medicaid backlog payments, and facing an unprecedented “junk” bond rating downgrade.
“The hard part about it is most people oppose it and they don’t understand why [it’s needed] because they’re not feeling it. They’re not feeling the impasse. But the vote was to avoid a meltdown that everyone would experience,” Andersson said. “It’s one of the biggest votes I’ve ever taken, but I do believe we saved the state.”
Rauner, who had called the legislature into a special session, vetoed the budget package on Tuesday, saying it would cost the state more in the long-run.
"This is not just a slap in the face to Illinois taxpayers. This is a 2-by-4 smacked across the foreheads of the people of Illinois," Rauner said in an appearance on Wednesday.
The Senate quickly voted to override the governor and the House is readying for an override vote on Thursday.
"House Democrats look forward to working with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to begin healing the wounds of the last several years," Madigan said in a statement Wednesday.
Moody’s announced on Wednesday that regardless if an override happens Thursday, it may still downgrade Illinois bonds to junk. That’s because on top of budget troubles, Illinois has the largest pension debt in the country, owing more than $250 billion.
Andersson said he didn’t believe any of the 15 GOP members were backing off their original votes.
Stoking the backlash are well-funded anti-tax groups such as the Illinois Policy Institute, whose staffing exceeds that of some legacy newspapers. That group, which had warned its subscribers that Andersson and another lawmaker might vote with Madigan, posted on Facebook the cell phone numbers of Andersson and several other GOP members who voted for the tax hike.
Illinois residents had also been primed by negative TV ads for the past two years — funded by Rauner — warning that Madigan would raise people’s taxes. Now, Madigan’s budget does just that.
“It’s just business as usual. 46 percent of the people wanted to leave the state if they could before the crisis,” said Republican state Rep. David McSweeney, a staunch anti-taxer who has one of the largest Facebook followings in state politics. “People are absolutely — I’ve never seen such intensity … The last thing people want is the status quo. They don’t see anything that’s been done to reform.”