Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Construction funds approved as lawmakers end one-day session

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers voted today to ensure that construction projects continue as planned throughout the state, but one legislative leader says budget work is not complete.

Senate Bill 2414, (House Amendment 2), which contains the construction spending, passed through both chambers in a matter of hours and was clearly the priority of the one-day summer session. Senate Democrats agreed to back off the $430 million of spending for education and human services that they tacked on to the capital funding, causing gridlock over its approval. But Senate President John Cullerton said that debate on the budget isn’t over.

“There’s a number of problems with the House budget that the House is aware of, that we’re aware of, where there are under-appropriations of things that need to be appropriated,” Cullerton said. He said the House approved less money in areas such as state aid for schools and Medicaid without making other needed tweaks such as rate changes. So the state will keep doling out the money as if the cuts have not been made, and the funds will not last all fiscal year, he believes. “What will happen is, they’ll get paid the same amount of money that they would normally get paid because the formula didn’t get changed. And then sometime late in the fiscal year … they would then run out of money,” Cullerton said.

He said the Senate would likely consider additional funding in the fall veto session, or more likely in January, when Democrats could approve it with a simple majority and no Republican votes. “We’ll have half a year of income, and we’ll see what the income is. And see how much of the old bills we’ve paid down to make an evaluation then as to what we should do.”

Gov. Pat Quinn called on lawmakers to approve the spending for construction without any additional operational funding. Quinn has said he supports more spending on education and human services but said that he did not want to jeopardize the job-creating capital construction bill. “The General Assembly took action today to keep the state’s biggest economic recovery program going, ensuring that thousands of workers stay on the job. Today’s session was about jobs and capital, and I thank the legislative leaders and members of the General Assembly for passing a 12-month capital appropriations bill, as I had asked of them,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “A capital construction program was one of the first priorities of my administration, and it is a key component of my plan to bring jobs and economic recovery to Illinois. The plan is Illinois’ first capital program in more than a decade, and it is expected to create more than 439,000 jobs over six years.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the House budget does not need fixing. “What I’ve heard about over the last few weeks is — from a variety of angles — that our budget in the House either didn’t spend enough, didn’t cut enough, cut too much [and] was not a good budget.”

He said a bipartisan effort in his chamber produced a budget that accounts for making the state’s pension payments, does not spend more than the state will bring in next fiscal year and will probably result in extra revenue that can be used to pay some of the state’s overdue bills. “It’s a pretty good budget. Is it a perfect budget? No. Is it a budget that could have had more reforms? Yes. Perhaps more cuts? Yes. But it’s a very good starting point,” Cross said on the House floor. “If we continue down this road in the years to come, we can climb out of this hole. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to continue to require us to work together.”

Cross took a swipe at his Republican counterparts in the Senate, many of whom have said the approved budget does not have enough cuts. He joined the chorus of Senate Democrats who have chided the Republicans in that chamber for refusing to draft their proposed cuts into legislation. “I would invite them to belly up to the bar and in real bill form put their cuts on the table. You can talk in theory all you want. You can make suggestions, you can have menus, but when it comes down to the real deal and sitting at the table and making cuts, this chamber did it. And it wasn’t easy.” He called on House members not to back away from their budget plan.

However, Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, a budget point man for his party in the Senate, disagrees. “The budget that they voted for and passed has issues. It isn’t a good budget. We had an alternative that we thought was a better budget, but that’s the budget that the majority chose to pass.”

Murphy said the House budget did not cut enough and that changes to areas such as the school funding formula needed to be made to avoid trouble down the road.

“If you’re serious about this tax increase being temporary, if you want to pay your bills without borrowing, you’re going to have to cut spending significantly. You’re going to have to reform programs like the Senate president’s talking about — from pensions to Medicaid, educational formulas all down the line — no sacred cows. There has been an insufficient willingness and appetite to do that. And until we do, you’re going to have budget problems,” Murphy said. He said one good that came of today’s session was a plan to divert money from the state’s “rainy day” fund to be used to make Medicaid payments and capture up to $100 million in federal matching funds. Once the money comes in from the feds, the “rainy day” dollars will go back into the fund.

“It didn’t involve the selling of any bonds or taking on more state and taxpayer debt,” Murphy said. “It confirms once again that we didn’t need to borrow nearly $9 billion to get the federal match.” Quinn had pitched several borrowing plans that would help the state get federal matching dollars. Murphy is referring to what Quinn calls a debt-restructuring plan to pay down all of the state’s backlog of overdue bills, not just Medicaid bills.

Then Senate also approved a plan today to extend reductions to the per diem payments lawmakers get for session days, as well as a cut to their travel reimbursement rates. If Quinn signs the bill, lawmakers would have to take 12 furlough days next fiscal year and forgo a cost-of-living salary increase.

The Senate did not take a vote on Senate Bill 1556, which would exclude from union membership state workers who are managers or who do work that primarily deals with policy issues. Cullerton said there was not enough support to pass the bill and that some members think that certain parts of it may need rewriting. The Senate also failed to act on the appointments of Gary Chico, former head of Chicago Public Schools and Quinn’s choice to chair the Illinois State Board of Education, and former Canton Democratic Rep. Michael Smith’s appointment to the Educational Labor Relations Board. Senate Republicans said they want Chico to appear before the appointments committee, and they voiced concern over whether Smith met all the legal requirements for the job.

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