Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Worlds apart

By Patrick O'Brien
The two chambers of the General Assembly are negotiating budgets in two different universes.

The House advanced budget bills containing — by the Republicans’ count — an estimated $3 billion in additional spending.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said the budget process, which many Republicans said excluded them from the start, was open and transparent and reverted back to the process used before 1991. Madigan pointed out that two versions of the budget were presented, one that offered flat funding and one that increased funding for most agencies.

“You had your opportunity. You had your choice. What’s the complaint? There’s never been, since 1991, so much participation in budget making as there has been over the last several weeks,” he said.

The “opening up” of the process, however, could also generate election year ammunition to hurt vulnerable Republicans. By forcing them to reject the menu of budget options crafted exclusively by Democrats, their opponents could argue they failed to vote for any budget.

Republicans could still play a role in the budget process if Democrats of both chambers fail to send an agreed budget to the governor by May 31. GOP votes would be needed to get the three-fifths majority required after the constitutional deadline.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat who voted for some but not all budget measures Wednesday, said the battle has only just begun. “I think this is just the first salvo in what could be many budget bills going back and forth,” he said. “I don’t think anyone here believes that the stuff we voted on here today is going to be the final budget.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats …

Are basing their budget proposals on revenue estimates similar to those in the House, but they’re drafting a budget that would decrease funding in some state agencies and offer flat funding in others.

The Senate Democrats also are counting on almost $2 billion in additional “budget pressures” on top of state agency needs. These include new contracts for state workers, Medicaid funding to prevent doctors from waiting for state reimbursements and an $800 million increase in payments to the pension fund.

The Senate Democrats are working on a $16 billion pension bond deal for the state to address mounting liabilities, but they have not consulted with other legislative caucuses, according to Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat.

“It seems like we’re coming from this budget from entirely different perspectives. We’re not starting out on the same page,” she said. “I think what we have failed to do is establish priorities. I think that would make the budget come together.”

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