Monday, May 21, 2012

Senate Democrats and Republicans bicker over budget

By Jamey Dunn

A legislative committee approved pieces of a budget plan crafted by Senate Democrats that would tap into special funds to pay down a portion of the state’s massive backlog of overdue bills.

“It’s a very balanced approach which is providing funds for paying unpaid bills that are past overdue,” said Sen. Heather Steans, a budget point person for the Senate Democrats and sponsor of some of their budget proposal. “We very much want to take a tack of getting out our responsibility to the vendors and bringing that number down.”

Their proposal calls for about $400 million from sweeping special funds to go toward paying off overdue bills. Senate Democrats say that money, coupled with money from another area of the budget and federal Medicaid matching funds, would reduce the backlog by $1.3 billion. Although the committee members approved portions of the Democrats' proposed budget today, they have not yet signed off on the fund sweeps and are reviewing a long list of potential funds that could be targeted. Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said there are no plans to repay the money that would be swept from special funds. For more on such funds and how they play into the budgeting process, see Illinois Issues April 2012.

But Senate Republicans said Democrats should be considering cuts instead of tapping into other funds. They said they could not support the proposal because it does not put the state on a path to security after the recent income tax increase begins to roll back in 2015.

“I believed that we shared brief, shining moment of optimism in the beginning of our talks,” said Sen. Pamela Althoff, a McHenry Republican. “Unfortunately as we tried to progress, we really broke down. Our conversations, they stalled over one basic staunch principle, and that was a promise of the Republican caucus to always craft a spending plan that put the state of Illinois on a trajectory to eliminate the tax increase on schedule. And what we see before us now makes [our] support of this proposal impossible, as we cannot meet that principle.”

Steans said that savings from Medicaid and pension reforms — negotiations on both are currently under way — would create future savings. She said changes to those two areas, combined with an effort to pay down the backlog, could prepare the state’s finances to be sustainable when the tax increase rolls back.

“The tax increase is set to roll back in law. It’s going to take a vote of the General Assembly and the governor signing it before we could ever have something other than the tax increase going away. So there is nothing in this that precludes us from having that tax increase go away. I, in fact, believe this very much sets us on the path, so it will be a decision for future general assemblies and governors to decide on what we’re going to do about that,” she said.

Democrats said Republicans are stalling and being obstructive. Steans said that any time an agreement seemed close in negotiations, Republicans “moved the goalpost.”

Another potential sticking point is facility closures. The proposal calls for the closure of the Dwight Correctional Center, the Murray Developmental Center in Centralia, the Jacksonville Developmental Center and the Tinley Park Mental Health Center. While no Republicans spoke out adamantly against the closures at today’s hearings, Republicans on the Commission for Government Forecasting and Accountability, which takes advisory votes on facility closures, have general opposed closing downstate facilities.

Meanwhile, the Illinois House sent a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn today that would eliminate a controversial scholarship plan and another that would make lawmakers and constitutional officers take furlough days and bar them from getting a cost-of-living increase.

The legislative scholarship program lets lawmakers to give tuition waivers for state universities to students within their districts. The program has come scrutiny after reports that some lawmakers gave the scholarships to the children of campaign contributors and political allies.

Those in favor of the program argued that the legislative scholarships are a relatively low-cost way to ensure that some form of financial aid goes to students in every legislative district in the state. The program costs universities about $13.5 million annually. Proponents say that it gives an opportunity to students who might otherwise not get to attend college. Some lawmakers have opted to have independent panels award the scholarships.

Quinn, who has been pushing for the elimination of the program, said he plans to sign House Bill 3810. “Today is a good day for deserving students in financial need and a good day for the taxpayers of Illinois,” he said in a written statement. “There is no place for a political scholarship program in Illinois. As I have repeatedly advocated: Scholarships, paid for by Illinois taxpayers,should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need. Abolishing this program is the right thing to do.”

According to Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, sponsor of HB 3188, the furlough days required in the measure would result in a 5 percent pay cut for lawmakers. The proposal also freezes salary levels for legislators and constitutional officers.


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