Thursday, May 30, 2013

Illinois Senate approves
more budget legislation

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Senate Republicans supported legislation today to spend unexpected tax revenue on the state’s old bills but rejected the rest of a budget plan crafted by Democrats of both legislative chambers.

Education spending, which the Senate approved Wednesday, passed without Republican support, and the vote totals for the rest of the about $35 billion Fiscal Year 2014 budget looked the same today. The one exception was that most of the Republicans in the chamber voted in favor of a measure that would put an unexpected income tax revenue windfall toward the state’s stack of unpaid bills. House Bill 206, the supplemental appropriation that would pay down bills this fiscal year, now heads the Gov. Pat Quinn. The education budget bills — Senate Bill 2555 and SB 2556 — await a vote in the House. The legislation also includes the payments to debt service, employee health benefits and pensions.  “I think it’s a responsible use of the additional billion dollars that came in from income tax,” said McHenry Republican Sen. Pamela Althoff.

House and Senate Democrats crafted the budget this year after cutting Republicans out of talks a few weeks ago. Here’s a breakdown of the bills:

HB 208 is the operational spending for state education agencies, as well as some higher education costs, including student aid.

HB 213 is human services funds and Medicaid spending.

HB 214 is general services spending, the General Assembly’s budget and the constitutional officers' budgets.

HB 215 is public safety and transportation spending, Illinois Department of Corrections budget, capital construction spending for the next fiscal year and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources budget.

The bills give some lump sums to state agencies to allow for flexibility in funding programs and personnel costs. Sponsors said the hope is that agencies can manage spending and meet the requirements of the new public employee union contract, which includes pay raises. However, the proposal does not include funding for previous raises still owed to state employees. Democratic Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago said $60 million is in an escrow account that can be used to start to pay down those wages. But she said she does not know of any immediate plans to pass a supplemental bill explicitly for the back pay. A representative from Quinn’s budget office said during a Senate budget committee hearing yesterday that the administration does not plan to provide all the back pay without a supplemental spending bill because it would likely require layoffs, something Quinn’s office says he wants to avoid.

Quinn and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are backing a spending bill to cover the back wages, but as of today, the bill is sitting in the House, still on second reading. It could not pass in its current from before tomorrow's adjournment deadline. However, the measure could be drafted into a different bill and still make it through by the end of the day tomorrow. “There is strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly for HB 212, the supplemental appropriation to pay wages owed to caregivers, correctional officers and other state employees dating back nearly two years,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31. “Public servants shouldn’t have to wait a day longer for the wages they earned, and Illinois taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay another penny of interest or legal costs incurred by the state’s continued failure to fulfill its responsibility to its employees.” The raises were not paid to workers in 2011 because Quinn said that lawmakers did not approve the funding for them.

Sponsors of the budget plan said that paying off bills this fiscal year with the additional revenues would make next year’s budget less painful. They said the spending for next year fully funds programs and agencies and will keep them from having to budget from crisis to crisis, as has been the case during the past few years. “We should not have any providers getting notices next June that they’re not going to be getting payments,” Steans said. Such notices went out to childcare providers last year and providers of in-home care for the elderly this year. In both cases, lawmakers approved additional spending late in the fiscal year to keep the programs afloat. The budget would reduce many human services operations by 3 percent from Quinn’s proposed budget. Grants would be cut by 1 percent from the budget introduced by Quinn, but many areas, such as community mental health, would be shielded from the reduction. The Department of Corrections would see a $70 million increase that supporters say was needed to avoid further prison closures.

Republicans complained that the rest of the budget does not reflect their priorities and that funding went to programs without proven results. They hit on $1.5 million included for a program that is a perennial target for their criticisms: Grow Your Own Teachers. Republicans said the program, which works to encourage minority residents to become teachers in the state, is too expensive and pointed to historical statistics that show that the bulk of enrollees drop out before receiving teaching certificates.

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge acknowledged the past problems with Grow Your Own Teachers, but noted that it has improved its stats. He said that after the program was unable to show lawmakers that its results justified its spending line, they program was cut and restructured. He said now the graduation and placement stats are better. “When we said to them last year, your data isn’t good enough they came back” with improvements, Kotowski said. “We’re seeing progress as a result of the policy decisions and the changes that we made here as a byproduct of the appropriations process.”

Republicans said the money would be better spent on K-12 education or restoring some of the Medicaid cuts made last year. “Including things like this in this budget undermines the credibility of the budget overall because they lead to the conclusion that the budget is more of a political document than it is an outcomes-based reflection of priority,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.


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