Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Plans for session, but no agreement

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers will return to the Statehouse next week in hopes of hashing out a plan to keep the state’s capital construction projects rolling. However, some Democrats still want to see additional spending added to the budget approved last month.

Senate Democrats tacked on to the House's budget $430 million in spending, which would go primarily to fund social services and education, by tying it to the funding for construction projects for the next fiscal year. The House did not take up the Senate’s changes to the bill, and Gov. Pat Quinn warned that projects could start grinding to a halt as early as Friday if the funding is not approved. 

Leaders of both legislative chambers agreed to call members back next Wednesday, so they say there will be no need to call a costlier special session. Lawmakers could also take up other legislation and would not be restricted by the special session requirement that they stick to the topic they were called back to address.

However, after a meeting today among the four legislative leaders and the governor, a compromise to address budget issues does not appear close at hand. “At this point [House] Speaker [Michael Madigan] remains willing and anxious to work cooperatively with the governor and the Senate,” said Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman. “I don’t think there are any specifics from our side that have come out as a result of the meeting today.”

Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who led one of the Senate’s two budgeting committees, said before today’s meeting that the leaders would discuss approving construction spending for six months with the understanding that other budget issues would be up for consideration when the capital spending ran out. Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition, said he would support such a plan because he believes lawmakers will likely discover as they begin to see revenue come in next fiscal year that the House estimate the budget was based on was low. “My feeling is that the House underestimated the potential revenue for the new fiscal year,” Moss said. “Once these cuts go into place, it’s difficult to get them back, so whatever works.”

It appears that Senate President John Cullerton floated the idea, only to have it shot down. “The Senate president went into today's meeting with an alternative to address all the leaders' concerns and ensure that the construction program continues for the next six months. That option was rejected. He intends to consult with his members to find consensus on how Senate Democrats plan to proceed,” said John Patterson, a spokesman for Cullerton.

A Quinn spokeswoman told reporters after the meeting in Chicago that the governor wants lawmakers to approve a “clean” capital bill with no additonal spending. She said Quinn wants to address the budget again when lawmakers return for veto session in the fall. Quinn called the budget “incomplete” the day after lawmakers adjourned the spring session, saying education was not properly funded. A written statement issued by the governor’s office said: “In a meeting today with the legislative leaders, the governor pushed for a 12-month capital appropriations bill with no conditions. He emphasized that without agreement on a capital bill, we will lose 52,000 jobs and irreparably damage our economic recovery. The governor proposed to have a sincere conversation with the legislative leaders in the fall to discuss reallocation of funding within the $33.2 billion state budget, based on the Senate Democrats' priorities. The legislative leaders will present these proposals to their respective caucuses, and the governor has asked them to come to agreement before Friday.”

Kotowski said there are options to add in the $430 million in spending without breaking the House’s revenue estimates. One example he gave was Senate proposals, not yet approved by the House, that would cut government operations, such as the budgets for constitutional officers. He says the cuts would represent $74 million that could be spent elsewhere. “We could hit that number. … We could get the money that we need without increasing spending whatsoever,” Kotowski said. “I would hope to see more willingness on the House side to see more cuts … in order to fund these people who don’t have a voice in government.”
According to Larry Joseph, director of budget and tax policy initiative for Voices for Illinois Children, the budget implementation bill did not include $297 million in transfers from the General Revenue fund to other state funds that the House originally planned for. “That constitutes a spending cut,” he said.

Joseph added that the process of automatically transferring money to funds needs more transparency because some funds, such as the Local Government Distributive Fund — which will not see a reduction in the approved budget — do not have other revenue sources, but other funds get money elsewhere and may not need as much from the operating budget. “The whole area of statutory transfers is very murky,” Joseph said. “A lot of them are just never scrutinized. They’re on automatic pilot.”

Whatever lawmakers decide to do in the end, be it passing capital spending for six month or a year with no additional General Revenue Fund spending, restoring some amount of the proposed spending from Senate Democrats possibly by shifting around money to fund some of the costs, or another as-of yet-unforeseen solution, Republicans will have a seat at the table because the General Assembly has exceeded the May 31 deadline to pass the budget with a simple majority. Anything passed now will require a three-fifths majority and Republican votes in both chambers. Inquiries to both Republican leaders’ spokespersons for comment were not returned.


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