Monday, February 17, 2014

Cullerton: Lawmakers must address $3 billion shortfall

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton today highlighted the challenges lawmakers will face as they try to craft a budget for the next fiscal year.

Cullerton said at a Chicago news conference today that Senate Democratic staff members have been running the numbers as budgeting hearings will begin this week in the Senate. “We find that Illinois faces a nearly $3 billion budget hole for this coming [fiscal] year, and if not corrected, this could decimate classroom funding, send college tuition soaring and erode all the financial progress that we have made in the last few years.” Several factors are coming together to create the shortfall. The temporary income tax increase will begin to step down in the second half of Fiscal Year 2015, taking an estimate $1.6 billion in revenue with it. Expenses such as Medicaid, the state’s annual pension payments and personnel costs are expected to increase.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address was scheduled to take place this week, but the General Assembly voted earlier this month to move it to March 26. Quinn’s staff says he needs more time because he intends to present a five-year budget plan. Republicans called the move political because the new date falls after the primary election, when Quinn would know whom his general election opponent would be. Quinn is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but four Republicans are vying for the GOP nomination. Two of them, Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady and Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard, are sitting legislators.

Before the vote, Cullerton announced that the Senate would begin hearing budget ideas this week. “Surely people who have been running for governor for five years have some idea about what their budget should be,” he said. “For those who are disappointed in this, February 19th is the day to have your budgets ready.” A joint hearing of the chamber’s two budgeting committees is scheduled for Wednesday.

Today, Cullerton said he hopes to jump start a “discussion” on bridging the budget gap, and he called on Republicans in his chamber to present potential solutions. “We need to solve this $3 billion hole in our budget in a bipartisan way,” However, Cullerton said there is “no easy way to do it,” and he dismissed proposals such as cuts to Medicaid that Republicans have made in the past. “That would ignore the fact that we’ve already done that,” he said. Lawmakers approved and Quinn signed into law a package of Medicaid changes and new revenue in 2012.“This Medicaid reform package that was done in a bipartisan fashion — Republicans and Democrats — nothing was left on the table, and so it’s not like there’s $3 billion in savings that we ignored in our Medicaid reform bill.” Cullerton said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have made tough choices to manage the budget in recent years, including approving changes to pension benefits for public employees. “We’ve gone right at the nature of the problems, pensions and Medicaid, and we’ve cut them.”

He indicated that finding more to cut could be difficult, and any large spending reduction could result in slashing the state’s education budget. “We’ve already closed prisons, closed mental health facilities and other centers, cut payroll, head count is down thousands from years ago. So when someone says, 'Well, just eliminate the waste and fraud,' you have to cross-examine them and ask them what they’re really talking about.” While budget cuts have been made, the tax increase, which was approved with only Democratic support in 2011, also provided billions in revenue that helped Illinois partially climb out of the estimated $13 billion deficit it faced just a few years ago.

Republicans see this week’s hearing as another political maneuver in an election year. Senate GOP spokeswoman Patty Schuh said the hearing seems to be intended to provide the governor some “cover” for presenting his budget late. “Our members will be looking to see what the Democratic majority plans to do to keep the promises they have made.”

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