State parks could remain open, but historic sites definitely would not. And substance abuse treatment services would receive the $55 million they need to remain active and to secure federal matching funds. But the state attorney general, other constitutional officers and legislative commissions weren’t so lucky.
In short, the battle ain’t over, even though the legislature’s annual fall veto session is.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation Thursday restoring, according to his office, about $180 million that had been vetoed as part of his $1.4 billion budget cuts earlier this year. That leaves about $55 million unfunded from what the legislature wanted to restore this fall. The General Assembly approved a plan to transfer money from special dedicated funds to save state parks and historic sites, programs that deal with substance abuse and developmental disabilities, and funding for constitutional officers. Blagojevich approved half of the plan in September, leaving the restorations up in the air. And some of the budget restorations for state parks could remain up there, as the governor left himself some space to maneuver.
Blagojevich announced the $180 million in restorations minutes after the House and Senate adjourned their annual fall session Thursday evening. Through a news release, Blagojevich said certain special funds are restricted by the federal government and could jeopardize future federal funding if swept.
“If you discount those federal funds that are restricted, then that only leaves a certain amount available,” said Katie Ridgeway, a spokeswoman for Blagojevich’s budget office.
She added that the bigger picture is that these cuts are accompanied by a $2 billion deficit, for which the governor introduced a four-point economic plan. The House started early Thursday by discussing one part of the plan to let the governor reserve up to 8 percent of the budgets approved for numerous state services, but the bill wasn't called for a vote. Ridgeway said the governor will continue to work with the legislature to find more agreeable language, but she would not specify whether those changes would address some lawmakers’ concerns that the governor could withhold 8 percent of the budgets for some state services and not others. (See background here.)
The legislature is not supposed to return until January 12, meaning the governor’s economic plan won’t advance unless Blagojevich calls lawmakers back into special session before then.
What’s funded by SB 1103:
The governor’s release says he restored $175.9 million, much of it for substance abuse treatment centers, front-line staff for the Department of Children and Family Services and a reduced fare subsidy for the Chicago-area Regional Transportation Authority. Other beneficiaries include state parks front-line staff, water and soil conservation, higher education, mental health and developmental disabilities.
What’s not funded because of the veto of SB 1103:
The governor did not spare the $2.4 million for the Historic Preservation Agency’s front-line staff, which means the 32 employees already laid off won’t get their jobs back. And without the staff, about a dozen historic sites scheduled to close Nov. 30 will close for the remainder of the fiscal year, says Dave Blanchette, agency spokesman.
Another significant portion of the $55 million vetoed by the governor is from Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. Functions affected range from personnel to state law enforcement and contributions to the state employees’ retirement system.
The attorney general’s chief of staff, Ann Spillane, didn’t buy the governor’s explanation and said through e-mail that the restorations would have come from “money generated exclusively through this office’s litigation — and Illinois law requires that this money can only be used by the attorney general’s office. The governor’s decision to veto this funding is nothing more than petty politics. And his explanation for the veto is false. In this current economic crisis, when the attorney general’s office is working to help Illinois homeowners stay in their homes, it is a disgrace to let the governor’s politics get in the way of this critical work.”
Ridgeway would only say that the governor made difficult decisions and set a priority of protecting core services.
The secretary of state, also, maintained significant losses. Others include the lieutenant governor, the treasurer and the auditor general. The legislative branch wasn’t immune, either. Cut were budget items for legislative research, printing and audits, as well as funding for two commissions that project economic activity and review the governor’s administrative rules.
A brighter spot: New leaders
Thursday was a historic day in the Senate. Wednesday night’s rare, simultaneous internal elections of new leaders for the Democrats and Republicans undoubtedly will change the dynamic of leadership in the Capitol. Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago is slated to become the next Senate president and leader of the extraordinarily large Democratic Caucus. Across the aisle, Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont will replace Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson as the first female caucus leader of either party. They start in January.
The mood in the Capitol Thursday felt lighter. People smiled, mingled, debated some serious legislation and congratulated each other. Perhaps the most touching moment came when Watson returned to the chamber floor for the first time since experiencing a stroke last month. Shortly after the stroke, he announced he would not seek re-election as minority leader but would continue to serve as a senator.
He spent four days in the hospital, 18 days in recovery and numerous days in therapy, but on Thursday, he Watson was walking, talking, laughing and crying. He broke down as he recalled the way he felt when he realized he had the symptoms of a stroke: slurred speech and difficulty walking. “I thought of [former Sen.] John Maitland and my dad,” he said, unable to finish his sentence through the tears. Both had serious strokes with lasting side effects.
Watson is undergoing intense therapy three hours a day, three days a week. He said he had low cholesterol, low blood pressure and didn’t smoke, although his family history increased his risk. He urges awareness. “People need to take care of themselves. They need to recognize that something like this can happen at any time. You need to take care of your diet, take care of your weight, take care of your blood pressure, take a baby aspirin every day.”
The previous night, Watson cast an important vote for Radogno over Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale. “She was my deputy leader,” Watson said. “I supported her and wanted to see her become leader. She did such a good job on the campaign side and on the policy side. And that’s important.”
Radogno, a moderate Republican, says she sees her role as a continuation of Watson’s. “One of the things that Sen. Watson did very well is keep the caucus together. And I think that’s probably the primary job that the leader has because when you’re in the minority, if you’re fractured, you’re even less effective. It’s going to be a challenge because we do have diversity within our caucus, but I think everyone in our caucus recognizes that we need to stick together. And I think it’ll be easy for us to do on both issues that are in the forefront right now, which are the tax issues and fiscal issues.”
We’ll have much more from Radogno in the coming months of Illinois Issues magazine.
Cullerton says he, too, will foster a more inclusive atmosphere in the Capitol, where the governor, House Speaker Michael Madigan and outgoing Senate President Emil Jones Jr. have been in years of gridlock. “I’m not going to fight with the speaker. I’m not going to fight with the governor. And hopefully, I can be a good go-between to try to bring about positive change.”
He already appointed Sen. James Clayborne, the runner-up in the Democrats’ internal elections, as his majority leader to signal a fresh start. “Even though we ran against each other, we remain friends,” Cullerton says of Clayborne. “He’s a very talented guy. He comes from another part of the state from me, and we need to make sure the downstaters feel like they can work with a leader from Chicago, which we can. So it’s important to have him as a person and the symbolism of having somebody from downstate in majority leader.”
Watch Illinois Issues for more about Cullerton’s first priority: advancing a long-awaited capital bill.