Tuesday, May 28, 2013

House passes most of its budget

By Jamey Dunn and Meredith Colias

Illinois House Democrats passed several pieces of their budget today as Republicans bemoaned being cut out of the process.

Both higher education and K-12 will be funded at essentially flat levels, compared to the current fiscal year. Human services would see cuts under the plan, but the outlook is not nearly as gloomy as it seemed just a few weeks ago. Sponsors of the various budget bills say that the situation would have been much bleaker if a windfall of $1.5 billion in unexpected revenues had not come in. “In April, there was a large surge because people sold a bunch of assets at the end of [Fiscal Year] '12 in anticipation of capital gains rate changes,” said Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsored the human services budget bill.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said Republicans do not support the $35.6 billion budget proposal, the bulk of which passed today. He said Republicans had been working on the budget, but Democrats stopped inviting his political party to talks in the last few weeks. “When it comes to spending ... the willingness to work with us goes by the wayside, and that is unfortunate,” Cross said. “Clearly we’re not going in the direction that we need to go if we intend to get our bills paid and if we intend to do away with the tax increase.” Republicans said they saw the budget bills for the first time last night.

While Republicans blasted the spending in the proposal, Harris, who took over the human services budgeting committee this year, said this is the first budget in recent years that will fully fund human services. “We’ve made cuts across the board but we’ve retained funding in core community services such as mental health, substance abuse, homelessness programs,” he said. This year and several other times in recent history, human services agencies have had to come back to the General Assembly midway through the fiscal year and ask for more money to avoid the shutdown of programs. “In other years, they’ve not appropriated for a full year, and they’ve always come back for [supplemental spending bills]. ... We wanted to pass something that was fully reflective of the realities of each department’s need,” he said. “I would say woe betide the department that comes back to us with a supplemental [request] this year.”

The budget does not explicitly include the raises promised to state union workers in a new contract. But personnel costs are provided in lump sums, and each agency is left to figure out how to work in the raises. “What we accounted for was their FY 14 raises, and they way we did that was to give our departments maximum flexibility.” A bill that would appropriate back raises, which Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will now give members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union after earlier freezing them, was not called for a vote in committee today.

Some of the unexpected revenue would be used to immediately pay down nearly $600 million in old human services bills. Harris said many of those payments would be eligible for federal matching funds under Medicaid. Some of the additional revenues were incorporated to the revenue estimate for next fiscal year and will be used to defer cuts to education and corrections. Republicans expressed concerns that the additional revenue projected should not automatically be used to increase spending in the budget. “We were conservative a year ago, and it served us well,” Arlington Heights Republican David Harris said.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Louis Arroyo said that the additional money allowed Democrats to funnel $70 million to the Department of Corrections to prevent the potential closure of more state prisons. “I believe there will be no prisons closing,” Arroyo said in a budget committee hearing this morning. “Corrections is going to be OK.” The House approved a public safety budget sponsored by Arroyo today. Higher education is seeing only a slight drop in funding.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin said that higher education would avoid the 5 percent cuts the governor called for in his March budget proposal. The extra funds would give "additional breathing room for some of our communities," Dunkin said. The House higher education budget, which was also approved today, calls for the Monetary Award Program, which provides scholarships to low-income students, to be funded at a level slightly less than what Quinn presented in his budget. The program has suffered cuts in recent years.

The House did not approve its K-12 budget but it is expected to tomorrow. The proposal adds more than $150 million to General State Aid for schools to keep the state's proration at 89 percent of the recommended funding level to schools. The bus transportation budget will be kept at 64 percent of recommended levels for schools. The new budget figures will also keep early childhood education and bilingual education at flat funding, compared to last year's budget.


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