Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Only half way there ...

... With a long way to go.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich approved a way to restore money that was cut from the state budget earlier this year, but human service providers, state parks and historic sites and hundreds of state employees are still in limbo.

Blagojevich signed into law a deal between the House and the Senate that authorizes the governor to transfer about $221 million from special dedicated funds that have “excess” money. (For example, a plumbing licensure fund has about $750,000 available from fees paid by people applying for a plumbing license.) The transferred money would go into a new fund, called the FY09 Budget Relief Fund, which serves as a lockbox that can only be used to restore money to human services, state parks and historic sites and constitutional officers who had to lay off employees or require paid days off.

But that's only half the solution. The other half is an appropriations bill, SB 1103, which authorizes the comptroller to write the checks. Without spending authority, the “fund sweeps” money just sits there.

The governor's office issued this statement: “The governor did sign the funds sweep bill, but the budget office and agencies have expressed concern over certain funds that are included in the bill. With that in mind, there is no certainty at this time how much money will actually be available and, thus, it would be preliminary to say how far this money will go.”

Rep. Gary Hanning, a Litchfield Democrat and House member who negotiated the deal, said the bill was in the public domain in the House for a week, and it sat in the Senate for two weeks. Democrats and Republicans of both chambers had an opportunity to voice concerns and ask for changes, some of which were accommodated before they sent it to the governor.

“All through that period of time, the governor and his people sat silently by and never weighed in one way or the other, so we assumed that they were OK with this bill,” Hannig said.

The governor's office offered another statement that his office made its concerns known in September, and the rest is up to the controller to decide which funds can be moved over.

Carol Knowles, spokeswoman for Comptroller Dan Hynes, said the measure, which the governor signed into law without changes, spells out which funds to sweep, how much to sweep and when to sweep. “There is no ambiguity what the law states,” she said. The transfers should be completed within the next day.

But even if the governor signs the spending bill without making any changes, he's not compelled to actually spend the money. To do that, he would have to send a voucher over to the state comptroller, who would then write the check. “He could sign the bill, but if he doesn't send over the vouchers, the comptroller still can't issue a check,” Hannig said.

The governor has until the first week of December to act on the spending bill. It could come up in the annual fall session — if there even is a “veto” session (because the House and Senate already acted on all but a few of the governor's various vetoes last month).

One more note: Before this mess started, the governor sought authority to transfer about $530 million (scroll down) from special funds. But his proposal would have let him sweep the money at any time in any amount up to about $530 million, Hannig said. The House changed the proposal to limit the spending to $221 million and to identify which funds could be swept and what the money could be spent on.

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