Tuesday, March 05, 2013

House preempts Quinn and approves a spending cap the day before his budget speech

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House kicked off its budgeting process a day before Gov. Pat Quinn is scheduled to present his budget plan.

The House approved a spending cap of $35.08 billion today, preempting the estimate that will presumably be a part of Quinn’s plan. “It ... means that if the governor walks into this chamber tomorrow, walks up to that podium and proposed to spend more than $35.081 billion, then he puts himself at odds immediately with this chamber,” said Arlington Heights Rep. David Harris, the ranking Republican on the House Revenue and Finance Committee, which produced the estimate. Rep. John Bradley, who chairs the committee, said it moved ahead because Quinn’s budget office was “all over the place” with its revenue estimates. “If the House adopts this number today, the House will have already spoken,” he said before the floor vote.

The revenue estimates approved in the last two years have been the basis for the budgets that lawmakers ultimately sent to Quinn. Those estimates were approved, however, after Quinn presented his plan. “It’s the same process we’ve used for the last two years ... and it’s the first and most crucial step in beginning the budget process,” said Bradley, a Marion Democrat. The projection means lawmakers will have more to work with than last year, when the estimate was $33.7 billion. “The revenues are expected to be stronger this year than last year, and we have significant spending pressures that we’re going to have to deal with,” Bradley said. “I think we’re going to have close to $2 billion of additional pressures this year, and that’s not including whatever may or may not have happened with regards to the contract announcement.” He said that the committee was still working to estimate the cost of the new contract for state workers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is in the process of ratifying the proposed three-year contract, which includes pay raises and requires employees to contribute more to their health care costs in retirement. He said the estimate also takes into account federal across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, that went into effect on Friday.

The revenue committee’s estimate was created by the bipartisan legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. “We drove down into the numbers of the COGFA report, and we determined that the COGFA numbers, unlike in previous years, we believed were accurate,” Bradley said. He said he thinks the estimate will be lower than Quinn’s projection. “I anticipate and I predict we’ll be below the governor’s number tomorrow.” Quinn’s office did not respond to questions about the House’s projection.

 Harris said that several issues before the legislature could bring in more revenue next fiscal year. “There certainly are unknowns out there, and maybe those unknowns will be favorable. Depending on what we do with hydraulic fracturing and gaming and telecommunications, maybe the revenue will be higher.” But he cautioned his colleagues not to expect new spending. “While the number is big, I believe that it’s reasonable, but let’s not plan to go out and spend it right away. Because my friends, we can’t spend it on education, or health care, or assistance to the developmentally disabled, or roads or any other needed service because our pensions payment alone goes up by $1 billion. So unless we make reforms to the pension system, this $1 billion increase in revenue goes to one place, and that’s for pensions.”

The next step in the House budgeting process will be to take fixed costs, such as debt service and the pension payments, off of the top of the estimate and then dole out spending numbers to the various appropriations committees. Members of those committees then make spending decisions in their specific areas of state government, such as education. “This was the first step of a long journey we have ahead of us this year,” Bradley said.

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