Thursday, August 23, 2007

I'm back in time for budget cuts

I'm nice and refreshed from our honeymoon in Germany and expect to blog as regularly as possible again. Thanks for understanding while I took a break from state budget reporting. Now, back to work.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday signed a state budget, allowing $340 million in school aid payments to immediately be issued. At the same time, the governor cut $463 million out of the state budget that was approved by both chambers earlier this month. The amount wasn’t surprising — he chopped about 1.7 percent of the $59 billion plan sent to him — but some of the cuts seem to contradict the governor’s numerous press releases about his priorities: health care and services for low- and middle-income families. For instance, he eliminated or reduced some cost-of-living raises for social service providers, cut money for community-based mental health services and decreased the amount allotted to expand broadband Internet services to rural areas. All cuts will become law if Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who’s been a Blagojevich ally most of the session, follows through on his promise not to let his chamber override the governor’s vetoes.

Along with the cuts is the governor’s never-ending push for health care. “While I’m pleased that we’re making a record investment in education, families across the state are still being priced out of health coverage and don’t have a way to see a doctor when they need to,” he wrote in a press release. “That’s why I’m removing almost $500 million in special pet projects and other spending that we simply can’t afford. And at the same time, we’re preparing new rules and administrative changes that will give half-a-million Illinoisans access to health care.” The details are still unknown, but his plan so far is designed to expand eligibility of existing state-sponsored health programs such as All Kids and Family Care.

The first-year cost of the health initiative is the exact amount Blagojevich cut from the budget: $463 million. That gives the impression he’s not spending money that he doesn’t have authority to spend, but it’s not that easy. The money doesn’t simply transfer from the line item cuts to his expanded health care programs. More on that another day.

As for the budget cuts, many are for state agency payroll and contracting services. “These are places where we thought we could achieve efficiencies while not impacting services,” wrote Justin DeJong, spokesman for the governor’s budget office, in an e-mail. Another common reduction in agency budgets was the state contributions to the employees’ retirement systems.

While he cut $75,000 here, $100,000 there, he made a lot of other reductions or total vetoes that might make some waves:
• Chunks of $3 million, $5 million or $7 million at a time for such education-related programs as reimbursements for transportation services, school safety block grants and supplemental payments to fast-growing school districts
• $6.62 million eliminated for cost-of-living adjustments for community-based substance abuse providers; and a $10 million reduction (from $29.3 million to $18.3 million) in cost-of-living adjustments for developmentally disabled providers that the governor’s office says was over-estimated in last year’s budget
• $6.25 million eliminated for a satellite campus of Lincoln’s Challenge, a military academy focusing on early intervention of high-school dropouts
• A $2.5 million reduction (from $3 million to $500,000) for the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which will join other states in planning a celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday in 2009
• About $26 million reduced from the Department of Human Services’ programs for home health care, autism diagnosis and other mental health services
• Nearly $5 million cut from the Illinois Arts Council, chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s wife, Shirley Madigan
• $6.25 million eliminated for the statewide program Operation CeaseFire, a violence prevention program in 15 communities around Chicago, Rockford, Decatur and St. Louis.

Rep. Bob Flider, a Mount Zion Democrat, said he was particularly disappointed in the Operation CeaseFire cut because he says it sends a message to the former prison inmates who are now helping others get jobs that their mission isn’t important. Last year, the governor announced $3.9 million for the project. You can read more about it in our upcoming September issue.

DeJong had this to say: "While CeaseFire and other initiatives may serve a purpose for a particular community or organization, we can't afford to spend taxpayer dollars on them right now. With the changes the governor made, the budget better reflects the needs of the state."

Flider also said projects in his district, including money for a food pantry and a homeless shelter, are among the $141 million cut of so-called pork projects, or legislative initiatives slipped into the budget so members can “bring home the bacon” to their constituents. Most of the pork projects cut by Blagojevich are in Democratic districts. Flider said those services are hit in political crossfire. “The governor has declared war on House Democrats, but it’s the people in my district who suffer,” he said. Why would the governor target projects in his district? Flider said that's because he's responding to what the majority of his constituents want: a priority of making timely payments to current Medicaid providers before expanding or creating new health care programs. “The governor wants his health care plan, and he’ll do anything to get it,” Flider said.

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