Friday, May 07, 2010

The blame game

By Jamey Dunn and Rachel Wells

It seems everybody had someone to blame today after a budget failed to pass both chambers of the General Assembly.

Senate Democrats, with no Republican backing, passed a plan and are now looking to the House to finish the job. “The action is over in the House. We have passed a budget. We have passed the revenues necessary to fund the budget, and it’s up to the House,” Senate President John Cullerton said.

The Senate passed:

House Bill 2428 which is similar to the House “Emergency Budget Act” that emerged last night. It requires legislators, state constitutional officers and agency executives to forfeit one day's pay each month during the fiscal year. It also extends the “lapse period,” the time when the state can pay off its bills from the previous fiscal year, from August 31 to December 31. It also gives Gov. Pat Quinn the power to borrow from special funds and includes the tobacco settlement “securitization.”

HB543 would let the state skip its employee pension payment until Quinn can find the nearly $4 billion needed.

HB991 would appropriate the money from a $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase, which passed in the Senate last year, to K-12 education, assuming that the increase, Senate Bill 44, passes in the House.

The Senate passed a spending bill early. That plan would require Quinn to make about $2 billion in cuts from last year’s spending.

Although the Senate passed several major budget components, the House failed to pass any budget legislation or take up the bills the other chamber approved.

“House Speaker Mike Madigan doesn’t have the necessary votes to pass the bills that we have passed here,” Cullerton said. However, he added that budget negotiations frequently take longer than originally planned. “Every once in a while this happens at the end of the year.”

Needing Republican votes to pass a borrowing plan to finance the annual pension payment, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie from Chicago, the House majority leader, pointed to the minority party for failing to propose a real alternative. “Borrowing for the pension payment is not a great thing to do, but it is, I think, the only thing to do, since no one has proposed a $4 billion cut in state spending.

“More than half of you supported a substantial borrowing program for the state universities as recently as yesterday, and you supported a plan like this just one year ago. So what’s changed?” Currie asked.

But, as Currie blamed Republicans for the possibility that the state might skip a pension payment, which would cost more money in the long run, House Minority Leader Tom Cross blamed Quinn for repeatedly disappointing them.

“A year ago, we said to you, ‘Yes, we will participate in a borrowing plan,’” Cross said. “The problem of today versus a year ago is we said to the governor, ‘Governor, we’re going to give you a chance, we have a new governor, a fresh start, we have some problems.’” But Quinn didn’t live up to House Republicans’ expectations, Cross said. “Our governor needs to lead. Leaders lead. He needs to cut; he needs to control spending; he needs to pay his bills; he needs to provide for job growth and Medicaid reform.”

The bill, SB 3514, only received 59 votes, 12 short of the number required for a borrowing measure.

Democrats then moved on to SB 1211, a spending bill that called for cuts equal to what the pension payment would be. The reductions were aimed at primary and secondary education, an unpopular area to cut. The measure failed by a wide margin, but House Speaker Michael Madigan challenged the minority caucus to file amendments detailing other cutting options.

Sen. Donne Trotter sees the troubles in the House as a chronic problem. “The House, I believe, has dropped the ball for the past two years in trying to be a partner and trying to make Illinois whole again. And it’s not easy, the economy is still bad, but there are certainly things that can be done that make it better than what it is now.”

Trotter said he doesn’t blame Quinn, and in the end the legislature has a duty to legislate. “He’s not our daddy,” Trotter said.

That may be the biggest passing of the buck to come out of the negotiations. Like last year, the General Assembly plans to give Quinn lump-sum appropriations and expects him to make what are sure to be unpopular cuts instead of negotiating a budget that doles out money by line item.

Cullerton blamed the recent financial crisis and lack of Republican support for pushing legislators to what he called the “dubious honor” of letting the governor make the spending decisions.

“In order to pass a budget when you have to cut so much, you have to get 30 and 60 people to agree to these cuts, and when the other party is saying no to everything, it makes it very difficult to pass,” he said.

Cullerton said Democrats "have worked on many, many things with the Republicans here. The one area where they just basically have just said we’re not going to help you is the budget, and that obviously is major area.”

But the deadline that the General Assembly missed today was really only one that they imposed on themselves.

As lawmakers left the Statehouse on Friday, on the day leaders had for months said would be the final day of their spring session, Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, said the self-imposed deadline didn’t matter. He said any budget deadline other than the constitutionally established date of May 31 is “arbitrary.”

Cullerton said both chambers will be returning before the end of the month.


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