State employees and service providers should know within 15 days whether state funding for the current fiscal year will decrease by more than $1 billion. Gov. Rod Blagojevich not only cut $1.4 billion Wednesday, but he also asked state agencies to tighten their belts and avoid spending their entire allotments to save another $700 million. His office couldn’t say whether those actions would result in layoffs.
He made the announcement during a special session of the General Assembly, convened to address an unbalanced budget for state operations. Legislators sent to the governor in late May a budget that Blagojevich says approved spending about $2 billion more than the state is expected to collect in revenue. While the Senate approved a series of ideas to plug that $2 billion hole beforehand, all of those ideas failed in the House.
The governor used the special session to blame House Democrats, i.e. House Speaker Michael Madigan, for approving an unconstitutional budget they knew would result in drastic cuts. The House reacted by scheduling a special committee of the entire chamber to hear pros and cons of all of the governor’s big ideas. In the past, those special committees have served as a springboard to trounce on the governor's plans before flat out rejecting them.
The governor called the House committee a circus. “Forget about phony committees on the whole that are circuses of excuses to do nothing and to fail to meet their constitutional responsibilities,” Blagojevich said at a Statehouse news conference before the House even voted on any of his revenue ideas. “But understanding they’re unlikely to do that, a couple of hours ago, I did their job for them. I balanced the budget. So now the ball’s in their court.”
The House Democrats did, indeed, reject one of his funding schemes that would have freed up $400 million. A House smaller committee soundly rejected a $16 billion pension bonding plan that would have restructured the state’s annual payments to the state’s five public employee pension systems.
But the House showed some wiggle room in transferring about $500 million in special dedicated funds to pad the state’s general fund — but not before gutting the governor’s original version that already received Senate approval in the spring. Madigan said the intent of the revised “fund sweeps” measure is to show a willingness to work with the governor on the idea. (It's a blank slate — they still have to insert the language.) But Madigan’s caucus wants to spell out which funds could be swept and where the money would go. Otherwise, his members object to giving free reign to the governor to sweep about half a billion dollars and spend it on whatever he pleases. Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and point person on human services, said she would be willing to consider fund sweeps if it saved human services from the budget ax. The governor’s cuts on Wednesday did reduce funding for human services by $210 million, erasing increases for autism programs, substance abuse treatment and mental health services.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the fund sweeps idea would “probably not [be] well received” in his caucus. While the GOP will continue to push for a statewide capital plan for construction projects, he reacted to the governor's cuts to the operating budget by saying: “We’re for less spending … but we weren’t part of the budget process.”
Some of the governor’s other cuts also scrap increases for higher education, which has gotten flat or reduced funding for a handful of years. (CLARIFICATION: Higher education still would receive a 2.8 percent increase across the board, minus community colleges. Their funding levels slightly decreased. The governor's higher education cuts relate to specific grants, including the monetary award program for needy students. So-called MAP grant funding stands to lose $18 million if it's not overridden by the legislature.) The same goes for about $150 million that would have funded school construction projects in 24 districts that have been waiting as long as five years for the state’s share of the cost.
The House has 15 days to respond to the governor’s cuts before they automatically become active. Legislators will hold another special session Thursday, when the House will continue to debate components of a $34 billion capital plan for a whole host of construction projects. Few expect the House to vote on the governor’s budget cuts before they wrap up and go home Thursday afternoon. If so, the chamber would have to return by July 24 if Democrats want to attempt to override the governor’s budget cuts.
The rest of the state budget that was left untouched by the governor immediately takes effect. That means legislators and constitutional officers could receive annual pay raises, or cost of living adjustments, that were left in the budget. Cross described it as “absurd.” “The whole idea of a (cost of living adjustment) is just mind boggling to me in this economic climate.”