Friday, June 01, 2012

Senate approves House budget after adding education spending

By Jamey Dunn and Ashley Griffin

The Illinois Senate approved the House's budget legislation Thursday after some Democrats demanded additional education spending.

The Senate signed off on the House budget after the House ignored budget bills passed by Senate Democrats. Senate Republicans objected to the spending levels in both bills.

The budget contains funding for state facilities that Gov. Pat Quinn had targeted for closure in his budget proposal in February. Quinn called for shutting down several state institutions, including centers for the developmentally disabled, a mental health center and some correctional facilities. The current legislation also contains funding to retool the state’s controversial supermax prison — where prisoners are kept in isolation for up to 23 hours a day — into a less restrictive system.

 Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer for Tamms Year Ten, a group pushing for the closure of Tamms, said it is unclear whether the plan would allow prisoners to have enough communal time outside of their cells. “We sort of need to know what they’re talking about when they are talking about refurbishing the prison and retooling it,” she said. Reynolds said that adding a yard and a cafeteria would not be enough to make Tamms a workable medium-security prison. She said other changes would be needed, such as the addition of a common day-room area and classrooms where education and rehabilitation programs could be held.

She noted that Tamms was built for isolation, so it would be difficult to move prisoners around in the way that they are moved in a medium- or low-security prison. “There's so many doors between the wing and the pods [where inmates are kept],” she said. “It’s just not as easy of a facility to let people in the yard or take them out to the cafeteria. It doesn’t seem very cost-efficient to rework it into a medium-security [prison].”

Reynolds said it is an important step that those in favor of keeping Tamms open support the idea of it no longer being a super maximum security prison. “The fundamental premise of [the state] needing a supermax has been destroyed. That admission is a victory in itself. Now we need to have a conversation about: ‘Do we need a new medium-security prison, and can we afford a new medium-security prison?’”

Some Senate Democrats said money should not be spent to keep facilities open when the state is cutting human services and education. “We cannot afford to go backwards, and we don’t have to go backwards. This is all called priorities, and I think the Senate has a better grasp on what the priorities are,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, a budget point man on the Democratic side. “In my mind and many down here, keeping facilities open isn’t a priority.”

Some Senate Democrats refused to vote for the House's K-12 education budget the first time the legislation was called for a vote, and the measure failed. “We should be voting no on this bill because the House sent us a budget with further cuts to education. The House sent us a budget that only added back $50 million more in general state aid,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood. “We put a whole a lot of burden on the local school districts and at the same time continuously underfunded them.” (For more on the spending levels in the House budget, see yesterday's blog.)

“Maybe some members did not get the memo that we don’t have any money,” said Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Democrat from Park Ridge “We are out of money.” But Senate President John Cullerton proposed some ways to find new revenue for education spending. House Bill 5440 would add a 5 percent tax to the gross profits of satellite television providers such as Dish Network and Direct TV. Cullerton said cable providers already pay the fee and that the legislation would bring in about $75 million. He also sponsored House Bill 5342, which would close some corporate tax loopholes for oil companies. He estimated that legislation could bring in $100 million. “Closing loopholes is definitely fair, and I think targeting certain tax credits is appropriate,” Cullerton said during a committee hearing on the legislation.

Senate Bill 2365 would dole out the new revenues According to an analysis from the Democrats:

  •  $24.9 million would go toward early childhood education. 
  •  $134.7 million would go into general state aid for schools.
  •  $15.4 million would go to the Monetary Assistance Program for college students.
  •  $24 million would go into the Circuit Breaker program, which provides assistance for the elderly.
Cullerton’s bills passed without Republican votes. “It is just another tax increase. Pass it on to the people who have been nickeled and dimed to death,” said Sen. Dale Righter, Republican from Mattoon. But with the additional education spending, Democrats did not need the Republican votes to pass the bulk of the budget bills. The House's education budget passed on a second floor vote.

Republicans said the budget would set the state up for financial peril when the recently enacted income tax increase starts to roll back in 2015, and they said the spending could prompt a vote to stop the increase from phasing out. “This is yet another brick in the wall of the permanent tax increase,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

They accused Democrats of running counter to the state’s relatively new Budgeting for Results law by funneling money into programs that do not have proven success. The law is supposed to give preference to programs that can document some level of success at meeting in-house goals. “Either apply this new law in a way that is understandable and explainable, or please stop telling us that it has changed the budgeting process at all,” Murphy said.

The additional education spending would still have to be approved in the House. Trotter said that there is time to get it passed when lawmakers return for session during Fiscal Year 2013, which begins July 1. “Those individuals over there represent the same people we do,” Trotter said. “They’re going to go home, like we are. … And they are going to hear from their constituents that say, 'How could we not fund education?' And I think it’s that kind of pressure that’s going to be put on the [House Speaker Michael Madigan]. The good thing about this legislative process is that we get more than one bite at the apple.”

The strategy is similar to one employed by the Senate last year to get additional human services spending. “Last year, we got a sad, sad budget from the House. They gave us the budget and left town. The Senate felt we had a more responsible budget. We presented it, and it didn’t go anywhere. We came back in the fall in veto session and put in all those things that we said we should have put in in June,” Trotter said.


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