Friday, July 01, 2011

Budget was a chamber vs. chamber battle

By Jamey Dunn

After Democratic and Republican leaders in the House aligned early on, the budgeting process for the new fiscal year that begins today became a chamber-versus-chamber showdown that was less about party allegiance and more about spending.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross came together in March to offer testimony on a fairly simple budget plan. First, pay all the bills the state has to pay, such as the annual payment to the employee pensions system. Then, dole out the rest of the money for operations and hope that basing the plan on a conservative revenue estimate will mean that there is some extra cash on hand to pay down the state’s billions of dollars in overdue bills to schools, vendors and service providers. The House’s projection for how much the state could spend this fiscal year undercut the legislature’s own bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s numbers and was about $1 billion less than the Senate’s projection. “This setting up of really very different spending plans and revenue estimates was essentially House versus Senate,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Madigan fired the first shot in the battle of the chambers the day he and Cross publicly joined forces, saying that if Senate Democrats wanted to spend more, House Democrats and Republicans from both chambers could prevail on lower spending numbers by holding the majority in a conference committee. “My expectation in this scenario would be that the House members would vote for the number that [was] approved by the House. And the Senate, I think that the people that would raise the [revenue] numbers would be the Democrats. … They ought to be outvoted,” he said. In response, President John Cullerton said the two chambers could work out their differences, and a conference committee would not be needed.

The House then set to work. Budgeting committees that plan for different areas of state government, such as education and human services, were given dollar limits and asked to make spending plans. Meanwhile, the Senate worked in its traditional fashion with only two budgeting committees tackling seemingly endless hours of testimony from agency heads, associations, interest groups and experts. The days when the majority of the budget was hammered out during long closed-door meetings among the legislative leaders and the governor seemed all but gone. “It was much more a legislative-driven than executive-driven budget. That’s unusual for Illinois. That’s very unusual for Illinois,” Redfield said.

As the House begin creating its budget based on “conservative numbers,” the potential for deep cuts loomed in the higher chamber, and Senate Democrats passed their budget proposal in a just few days without taking committee votes on their bills. Sen. Heather Steans, who chaired one of the Senate budget committees, warned during floor debate on one of the bills that her colleagues might not like the House plan. After Senate Democrats passed a number of their budget bills, Steans said: “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.”

The two chambers ended up approving plans that were about $1 billion apart. The Senate plan called for about $63 million more spending on education, $885 million more on human services and $21 million more on public safety, along with more spending on economic development and other government services. Cullerton and Madigan continued to play nice in the press. “We’re not sending any ultimatums by the adoption of this budget today. We recognize it’s a two-chamber legislature,” Madigan said when the House approved its plan.

However, in the end the House plan prevailed. Senate Democrats tried to tack on a measly — when compared with the $33.2 billion overall spending plan — $430 million in additional spending for education and human services and were shot down when Quinn, Senate Republicans and the House all roundly rejected the move. “One chamber ended up, because of [Democratic] alliances with Republicans, dominating the other,” Redfield said.

Cullerton warned that he believes the House plan is not sustainable. “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 because cuts were made but other necessary changes were not — such as a change to Medicaid reimbursement rates and the school funding formula —some funding will be used up before the end of the fiscal year. “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.

Cullerton predicted that the legislature will approve more spending in January, and other Statehouse observes agree that such a move is likely.

So why the showdown? Redfield thinks it is because Democratic leaders from both chambers had different goals for the budgeting process.

“I think Madigan believes and he’s selling to his members that they need to run [as] ‘new Democrats’—post-Blagojevich, balance-the-budget, we-can-govern new Democrats,’” he said. Redfield speculated that House leadership was trying to send a political message, while the Senate Democrats were more focused on policy. “In terms of what Madigan wanted to accomplish, both in terms of the budget itself and the process—promoting the idea that Democrats can govern—partnering with Cross made sense,” he said. “The speaker was setting up a set of numbers and an approach that [he] wasn’t going to get attacked from the right. … Ultimately, the people that want more spending didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Redfield said because the House got their work off the ground quickly and the members fell in line with the idea of a lower revenue estimate right out of the gate, the chamber was able to keep a generally unified front and push their agenda. “They had both a plan and an implementation that they got up and running more quickly, and they seemed to have more of a buy in [from members.]”

He added: “The Republicans could have tried to blow up the process, but I don’t think that was going to happen.”

Since the budget has typically been driven by legislative leadership and governors in the past, the abrupt departure of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — not to mention his refusal to work well with others before he left — forced a change. “Blagojevich kind of blew that up, but there was nothing to replace it,” Redfield said.

The first two fiscal years after Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office, the legislature passed lump-sum budgets and let Quinn deal with the difficult choices that came after a national financial crisis. But this year, lawmakers wanted that responsibility — and power — back. Quinn played a marginal role in the budget process, and his plan to borrow billions of dollars to pay down the state’s growing bill backlog went all but ignored. Redfield predicts a budgeting process similar to the one that occurred this year will play out next year as well. However, he said the House Democrats’ truce with Republicans might not last once they can gauge how they fared in elections under the new legislative map. “I think it’s going to look very similar next year. The question is what does it look like for 2013?”

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