Monday, July 09, 2007

Iron out the differences

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the four legislative leaders and their caucus members can’t iron out their differences about budget priorities. But after five consecutive days of special sessions, we could start to get a hint soon of where House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross think the state should cut funding in the pending state budget.

At least 50 legislators joined the leaders and the governor in budget negotiations at the governor’s mansion again, but some said yesterday’s progress of starting to talk about actual numbers already stalled. “The governor’s position is: He wants health care,” Madigan said Monday evening after the meeting. “That puts us anywhere from $1 to $3 billion apart. There’s no change.”

While everyone agrees the state has a budget deficit, Madigan said Republicans and Democrats agree the budget hole exceeds the governor’s $800 million projection. Madigan also said there was a bipartisan proposal to evaluate the budget line by line to find out where state agencies can cut costs. He said the administration rejected that idea, but Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix said the governor actually welcomes the idea and hopes to see a list of proposed cuts.

Cross said he suggested looking to the 2004 budget. Lawmakers met into mid-July in overtime budget talks, and the state made across-the-board cuts in nonessential services excluding education, public safety and human services. He said that could save $200 to $300 million this time around. He also said more progress would be made in finalizing a budget if negotiations consisted of smaller groups, not the 50-plus groups in the governor’s mansion for the past few days.

Madigan had a more stinging comment about what it would take to make actual progress: “Good leadership. And it’s not here.”

The governor spent the early afternoon at a Chicago press conference about gun control, leading some lawmakers of both parties to speak out in opposition to the potential of the governor proclaiming a special session just to focus on the issue. Downstate and Chicago area lawmakers often have opposite stances on gun control, but two agreed Monday afternoon that the state budget should take precedence in the second month of overtime session and the seventh day of special sessions called by the governor.

“To bring a gun control issue to the floor at this time would only be for the purpose of deflecting our energies and deflecting the media away from what we’re doing here,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who supports such gun control measures. “I for one believe we should be concentrating on our budget and only on our budget until we get this work done.”

The governor did call a special session for Tuesday afternoon, when the topic will be “supportive living” for the elderly, the poor and the disabled.

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