Wednesday, February 17, 2010


By Jamey Dunn

Behind closed doors ...

The Illinois Senate held a private meeting today to hear how the state’s financial and economic situation compares with the rest of the nation.

The National Conference of State Legislators presented the Senate with a report saying Illinois is not alone in its economic downturn and sizable budget gap. While the state’s situation is dire, representatives from the conference said Illinois is not among the worst of the worst states, economically speaking.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said legislators did not learn anything during the so-called joint caucus that they weren’t already aware of.

So, the most controversial topic to arise out of the meeting became the meeting itself. Both press and critics questioned the legality and ethical implications of the entire Senate holding a private meeting to discuss affairs of the state, a move called unprecedented by longtime Statehouse observers.

Legislators said the subject matter was fairly innocuous, and the press was briefed at a news conference after the meeting. They said that the closed-door policy helped them feel comfortable to have a bipartisan exchange.

“We were just trying to allow for members of the Senate to ask candid questions. … We have five senators who are running for other offices who are all candidates right now in the general election,” Senate President John Cullerton said. Minority Leader Christine Radogno signed off on the closed-door meeting, as well.

Cullerton said he had “no regrets” about closing the meeting. However, he added, “since everybody seems to be pretty upset about it — it’s not that big of deal — we just won’t do it anymore.”

And in the open

A heated exchange erupted in a committee hearing today after Senate Democrats merged two borrowing bills into one.

A plan to borrow $250 million to capture matching federal Medicaid funds and start paying medical providers more quickly is now tied to a measure that would allow state universities to borrow money to fund their operating budgets. Both proposals are intended to address the issues of the state’s millions in overdue bills.

The short-term borrowing plan passed the House with Republican support, including approval from Minority Leader Rep. Tom Cross. It went on to stall in the Senate amid rumors that it lacked Republican support in the chamber.

A proposal to give state schools borrowing power grew out of a request from Southern Illinois University. As of early February, the state owed public universities more than $735 million. In order to keep budgets afloat, most Illinois schools — Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois are not included in bill — have asked to borrow in anticipation of the state payments. According to the bill’s sponsor, Chicago Democrat Sen. Donne Trotter, schools would be responsible for their loans, and the debt could not be held against the state.

Glen Poshard, president of SIU, said the university system has been struggling to make its payroll. “SIU is in a very unique position in the state of Illinois. We are the second largest university but the only large economic engine for southern Illinois,” he said.

Republican senators said today that they support the plan to let schools borrow but are opposed to the state taking out another short-term loan because they say no plan has been offered for paying the money back.

They accused the Democrats of playing political games by putting the two proposals up for one vote as SB416. Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, called the meshing of the proposals “an ill-arranged marriage” that “creates concern” for legislators such as Righter, whose districts contain universities.

“By putting these two together, you’ve endangered the universities because you’ve now upped the number of votes that they have to get in order to get this latitude,” he said

The university proposal would only require a simple majority vote, while the short-term borrowing needs a three-fifths majority. Now that they are in the same bill, the three-fifths majority will be needed.

Trotter said that the state is late paying its bills to both the universities and medical providers and is putting both sectors at risk. “Why not just have one bill. … The need is there for both of those entities to get funds, and this is a way to do it.”

The merger is clearly a way to pressure Republicans who may want to back a popular bill that keeps universities’ doors open but do not support short-term borrowing. The Democrats are betting that the university proposal will be the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of state borrowing go down for some Republicans.


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