Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Some budget issues up in the air as session ends

By Jamey Dunn

As the regular legislative session ended, lawmakers sent the House’s budget, which was based on a much lower revenue estimate than both the Senate’s plan and Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal, to Quinn for approval. However, legislators from both chambers are open to making budget tweaks down the road, including increasing spending.

The Senate tried to push about $430 million in additional spending by linking it to the spending for the capital construction bill, but the House rejected the change.

“I think anybody would love to be able to say, ‘Hey we found a money tree and let’s go pick $400 million off of it,” said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican.

The largest portion of the Senate spending, about $151 million, would have replaced the House’s 4 percent cut to general state aid to schools. Because the Senate proposal, House Bill 2189 (Senate amendment 1) did not pass, the cut is in the final budget. By contrast, Gov. Pat Quinn had called for an increase of about $260 million to general state aid for schools

“Where’s the money coming from? It’s not within the [spending] caps we established. It’s not the conservative estimate. And we still haven’t done anything to pay the schools for the money we owe them for fiscal year 2011. [The payments] are going to be several months late. I understand why they took the action, but it doesn’t do anything to solve our problem,” said Eddy, the minority spokesperson on the House's K-12 budget committee.

On Monday, Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said that if the House did not approve the additional expenditure, the spending for the capital construction programs would also go down.

Rep. Frank Mautino, a budget point man for House Democrats, disagreed: “We’ve sold bonds and the money is there, though it may be tied up in court. The bond proceeds are there. The projects will continue.”

He said that because lawmakers also voted to extend the period in which they can pay off bills for the current fiscal year through January 1, contractors working on construction projects would be able to submit bills to the state through the rest of the year. The so-called lapse period that the state uses to catch up on bills from the previous fiscal year normally lasts through August. “So now, all those projects that are ongoing can just continue without a re-appropriation. … So we don’t need to do that bill,”said Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat.

Gov. Pat Quinn still has to sign off on the extension, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported while acknowledging that paying off the state’s overdue bills without borrowing will take longer. “I think this chamber made a wise decision in not engaging in borrowing,” said Sen. Pamela Althoff. She added that legislators need “the tools” to make sure that the vendors, social service providers, schools and local government that are waiting for state payments eventually get their money. As of now, lawmakers plan to pay off that roughly $6 billion in bills with any money that might come in that exceeds the “conservative” revenue estimate the budget is based on.

The Senate’s request for additional spending may be revisited later in the year because House Speaker Michael Madigan announced the appointment of a conference committee comprising members of both chambers to take up the bill. “[Our budget] is not complete because the other part of our budget is our capital budget that has not yet passed,” Cullerton said. “We’ll just have to come back and pass that later.”

When asked whether more spending could be in the future of the budget, Mautino, a member of the conference committee, said that if more revenues come in, it is a possibility. “At any time. We can always adjust. All the budget is is the authority to spend money. It’s just a plan. And our plan is designed to what we can reasonably expect to come in.” Mautino said that some of the spending the Senate wanted to tack on “might be agreeable” but added that the unpaid bills should be the top priority.

When the Senate adjourned its regular session just before midnight, Cullerton said that he is not sure when members would return. He noted that a calendar for veto session has been released, and it calls for the General Assembly to return to the Statehouse on October 25.

However, he warned the members of his chamber: “It may be before that, though.”

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