Wednesday, February 04, 2009

$5 billion worse off and U-N-I-T-Y

By Hilary Russell
Just days after the conviction and removal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, members of the 96th General Assembly wasted no time Tuesday learning how dire the financial straits of Lincoln’s land really are. The state is on track to begin fiscal year 2010 saddled with a $9 billion deficit. That far exceeds the $4 billion estimate released during Blagojevich’s last few months in office. Comptroller Dan Hynes said the state’s financial security isn’t going to improve in the near future.

“It dwarfs any previous budget faced by a governor and essentially shows just how bad things have gotten,” Hynes said from his Statehouse office.

Several factors are to blame for the state’s fiscal crisis. The first is attributed to two former governors, Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan, both of whom Hynes said “neglected and ignored” budget issues year after year.

The second factor that leads Hynes to use the words “disturbing” and “unprecedented” is the discovery that the fiscal year ’09 budget brought in far less money than projected. “(It) was imbalanced from the beginning by several billion dollars,” Hynes added. “So we started our year in a hole.”

He said a third factor is the worldwide economic crisis that hurts the state’s investments.

Even with a federal stimulus package in the works and the possibility that Illinois could receive $3 billion, it would only offer a one- to two-year reprieve, leaving the state with at least a $6 billion deficit.

One of Blagojevich’s accusations was that the legislature wanted to get rid of him to raise taxes. Now, the question of a state income tax hike comes to mind, and Hynes, rather than directly address the possibility of an increase, said the government would have to make the first sacrifice before asking taxpayers for more money.

Hynes added that the backlog of Medicaid bills is one of the largest problems, causing health care providers to struggle as they try to maintain services in the absence of state reimbursements.

Gov. Pat Quinn has requested a one-month extension to examine the budget before he presents his annual budget address March 18.

New laws
By Jamey Dunn
The legislature sent SB 1132 to Quinn's desk Monday. He plans to sign the bill into law tomorrow afternoon in the state Capitol. The measure would restore funding to the secretary of state, the attorney general, the treasurer, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and several conservation projects geared toward Illinois habitats, fish and birds. The measure was approved last month, when Blagojevich was still in office, but it was held until a new governor was in place.

Quinn also signed his first bill, SB 2757, into law today. The bill addresses recent court cases by making a change to the Illinois smoking ban. Now, violations of the ban will be civil rather than criminal offenses and will be handled by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The bill also includes certain exemptions to the ban and describes the processes for issuing and appealing tickets.

"Unity and harmony"
By Jamey Dunn
In a public gesture of bipartisanship, all four legislative leaders met with Gov. Pat Quinn in his office Wednesday to discuss the problems facing the state.

The meeting itself was brief, under half an hour. Afterward, Quinn addressed reporters with House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Tom Cross. Before taking questions from the press, Quinn said that “we are going to be focusing on unity and harmony today.”

Quinn did not give specifics on how Illinois would address its budget deficit. He said a gasoline tax increase, which already has been proposed in HB 1, was not going to be ruled out. He also said it is very important that Illinois gets its “fair share” of the federal economic stimulus plan, which is why he made a trip to Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Senate leaders made another gesture of unity when they approved the resolution, SJR 1, to create a joint bipartisan committee on ethics reform. The resolution went forward with the understanding that the House would amend it to allow Radogno to appoint more members. As written, Cullerton would be allowed to appoint six members and Radogno four. She argued that ethics reform will require true bipartisanship, and Cullerton said he was open to having more Republicans on the committee.

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