Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Democrat senators pass budget bills despite Republican protests

By Jamey Dunn

Senate Democrats began passing pieces of a budget that they say would cut more than $1 billion from Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan, but Republicans say it would still increase spending from the current fiscal year.

Democrats say that their plan reduces spending from the governor’s proposal by about $1.2 billion. Republicans say it increases spending from the current fiscal year and only cuts from Quinn’s plan by about $364 million.

As bill after bill came up for a vote today, Republicans rose to say that they increased the bottom line over this year’s costs for the state agencies for which each bill set out spending limits. However, Democrats said because the General Assembly gave the governor lump sum budgets and let him decide where to make cuts for the last two fiscal years, recent spending levels are difficult to pin down. “Last year we did a lump sum appropriation. We had problems finding out — because of that — how much money was spent in individual agencies because it was up to the governor to do so,” said Senate President John Cullerton.

Democrats said if Republicans will not introduce their own budget bills, they have nothing else to work with. After a protracted debate about the spending bill for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cullerton said he would be willing to slow things down to consider Republican proposals, as long as they are in the form of legislation. “It’s very likely that we are spending less money than we did last year for the department of DNR. Now I would say, though, if you need to have us hold this bill to have the Republican approach to the budget for the department of DNR, I’d be happy to wait for it. What do you want us to do for the department of DNR? We’re cutting the governor’s proposal, and you’re criticizing us,” Cullerton said.

Republicans put out a list of options earlier in the legislative session that they say would cut more than $6 billion from Quinn’s proposal, saying that about $5 billion in cuts would be needed for the recent tax increase to phase out, as written in the law. However, they have not proposed their plan in the form of legislation. Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said Democrats know what his party would support. “We put out a budget proposal that had enough specificity. I know the local mayors in my district know what we said in the plan and where we’re looking to cut. The idea that we didn’t make a clear statement of what we were looking to do if we didn’t actually [have the ideas drafted into bills] is a red herring. People know what we want to do. We want to cut enough so that the tax increase is temporary [and] we don’t have to borrow anymore to pay our bills.”

Sen. Dan Kotowski, chairman of a Senate budget committee and sponsor of many of the budget bills, said he is focusing on creating a balanced budget for the next fiscal year based on the revenue projection that the Senate approved. Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said Quinn wanted to spend too much in his plan, and now, it is up to lawmakers to trim that proposal until it is in line with the funds the state will bring in next year. “The fact is that we’re making significant reductions. We’re cutting the cost of government, and we’re going to save taxpayers money,” he said.

Democrats were able to pass 10 of the more than 20 budget bills that make up their total plan. One bill, which would have set spending levels for some of the smaller state agencies, failed to get the needed support. Some Republicans did support a few bills, including the budgets for the Department of Labor and Central Management Services, saying the reductions were close to the cuts they proposed. “Our intention for most of us, I think — on our side of the aisle, the Republican side —  is to support them when they get cuts in the neighborhood of what we had asked for,’ Murphy said.

Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who also chairs a budget committee and sponsors the remainder of the budget bills, said it is important for the Senate to start sending budget bills over to the House so members facing the even steeper cuts forced by the lower House revenue projection  have other options. “I am certainly hopeful that these bills look very reasonable over there to our House colleagues when they are comparing them to what they’re trying to pass. … I think it might help, in fact, put some pressure on House members to think about how they’re voting if they have an alternative that is out there.”

She said the Senate could vote on more budget bills by the end of this week or early next week and that negotiations are ongoing.

Quinn, who has kept his distance publicly from the budgeting process, hinted today that he could become more involved if lawmakers cannot agree on a plan. “We proposed economies. Some of the members of the General Assembly, I guess the majority in some cases, don’t want to economize, so we’re going to find a path to Heaven where we have to make reductions, economies and savings. It’s imperative that we do that, and my job is to make sure that happens sometimes, whether they like it or not.”

He added that he would be willing to take on a lump sum budget for the third year in a row if legislators cannot produce a line item budget. “Last couple of years, legislators, as they came down to the final turn, decided they didn’t want to be specific on cuts, other than rhetorically talk about them. So they turned it over to me to make all the cuts, and that’s what I did. And will do it again if that’s what they want,” Quinn said. Lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle have vowed not to punt the budget to the governor this year.


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