Friday, May 24, 2013

House and Senate Democrats
see eye to eye on state budget
but not on pension changes

By Jamey Dunn

House and Senate Democrats are working together on a state budget plan that they hope to have completed early next week.

“The fact that the House and the Senate Democrats actually worked together on the budget is a first in the last four years, so I’m encouraged by that,” Senate President John Cullerton said after the Senate adjourned this afternoon. “And we have an agreement on the amount of money that we have to spend and a general idea of where these categories of money should go — how much for higher ed, how much for elementary and secondary, that sort of thing. And we’re working through all the different line items over the weekend.” He said Democrats hoped to fund K-12 education at the same level as last year and to avoid the cuts proposed in Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget. Cullerton said that in the Senate, he planned to share budget information with Republicans when Democrats are done with the process, and Republicans would have time to look over the plan. “We will vote on it maybe two to three days later.” House Speaker Michael Madigan declined to discuss the budget or pension reform efforts today.

House Republicans had been meeting with Democrats on budget issues, but Sara Wojcicki, a Republican spokesperson, said those talks have been “canceled indefinitely” this week. As for Senate Republicans: “We have been excluded from the budget process, but when we see the Democrats' budget, we hope it puts Illinois on a path to end the 67 percent income tax they promised would be temporary,” Patty Schuh, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, said in an email. “We would also like to see it end the Road Fund diversions blasted by the auditor general and fix the school funding inequities that give Chicago a disproportionate share of state education funding.” A recent audit found that money from the road fund was being spent on other costs, including paying off bonds from past road construction projects.

Cullerton said both legislative chambers are still at an impasse on pension changes. The House and Senate both approved bills that would reduce benefits for public workers, but neither body has voted on the other's legislation. Madigan and Cullerton have different views on what strategy for reducing pension costs would be possible under the state’s Constitution. Cullerton’s proposal is supported by unions representing state workers and teachers. Cullerton noted that a bill that is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss and which is similar to the House plan, failed by seven votes in the Senate. “I’m sponsoring that bill,” he said of Senate Bill 1, which passed in the House. “It doesn’t have enough votes [in the Senate]. It has fewer votes than Sen. Biss’ bill because now the unions have gone out and they’ve actively worked against it. So I’m going to continue next week to see if I can reach some kind of a compromise.” Cullerton said he thinks his plan would pass by a wide margin if called for a vote in the House.

He indicated he would be open to returning to his original proposal, which would include the House measure. His proposal, then, would be considered as a plan B if the Supreme Court rejected the pension changes backed by Madigan. But such a proposal could lack support of the unions. “That would be up to them to decide. I suppose they probably would be against it. That’s why I’m having trouble passing Senate Bill 1. I just want to emphasize that I’m not holding us back from trying to advance a compromise.”


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