Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Legislators eye "adjustments"

By Bethany Jaeger, Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Gov. Pat Quinn wrote his 40-minute Budget Address himself, just one indication of the change under the Capitol dome since the impeachment and removal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Wearing glasses and a navy blue suit, Quinn opened his speech Wednesday before the General Assembly to a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans. But the tone soon changed when Quinn described the context in which he proposes a bold spending and revenue plan:

  • An integrity crisis — The state citizenry is damaged and embarrassed by the “bipartisan betrayal” of former Govs. George Ryan, a Republican serving in federal prison, and Blagojevich, a Democrat fighting federal corruption allegations.
  • A fiscal crisis — The budget deficit is projected to be $11.6 billion by the end of fiscal year 2010, and the state can’t afford to pay nearly $5 billion in overdue bills.
  • An economic crisis — Unemployment is rising to nearly 8 percent.
“To be direct and honest, our state is facing its greatest crisis in modern times," Quinn said.

David Merriman, an economist and professor of public administration with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said in stark contrast to the budgets proposed by Blagojevich, “Quinn’s proposals are transparent, and the effects are relatively simple to identify. There is little or no smoke and mirrors.”

Senate President John Cullerton said he could see the looks on the faces of Democratic and Republican legislators. “Even if you didn’t agree with everything he said, it was just so gratifying to see the reaction of the members based on the governor’s sincerity and his words.”

Cullerton also pointed to the weighty proposals of an income tax increase, a road and school construction program, a reformed pension system and a slight bump in education funding. “It’s a lot of work, and he’s to be congratulated for making those proposals.”

But that doesn’t mean Quinn will get everything he wants. Legislators of both political parties already are eyeing “adjustments,” in Cullerton’s words, to ensure that an income tax increase is used as a last resort.

“If we cut as much as the governor has proposed, and we guarantee that we have paid our bills, and we guarantee that we have a capital bill, then — and only then — do we look to the income tax and determine whether we need it,” Cullerton said. “And, if so, how much we have to raise it?”

Income taxes
As we said last night, Quinn’s blueprint relies on a state income tax increase of 1.5 percentage points for individuals and 2.4 percentage points for businesses. But some of the new tax revenue would be shaved off to provide a heightened personal tax exemption, from the current $2,000 to $6,000 per individual. The net revenue: about $3.15 billion, according to House Democrats.

That’s one area subject to negotiations. Senate Democrats want to look at a personal exemption that’s lower than Quinn’s proposal or, possibly, phasing it in over a few years. Or, while they eventually could sign on to an income tax increase, they might seek a lower rate.

Quinn also wants to restructure the public employee pension system, which we wrote about last week. Business groups have been advocating for pension reform for years. Yet, there’s a concern about Quinn’s plan to divert money away from the amount the state is supposed to pay into those systems through 2011.

Quinn proposes changing benefits for newly hired employees. Among other changes, that would increase the retirement age and require them to pay more into their retirement benefits. At the same time, Quinn proposes shorting the amount the state pays into the pension system by $500 million this year and $2.3 billion next fiscal year (CORRECTION: I misread a chart and mistakenly thought there would be a third year of reduced pension funding. I was wrong. There are only two years, totaling $2.8 billion. I sincerely apologize.). The pension reforms are estimated to save about $160 million by 2045.

Cullerton said while he believes the governor’s pension reforms could save money over time, “we just have to examine the numbers and make sure that those savings that we would get in the future would justify lower payments into those funds right now.”

Public employee unions reject the idea in its entirety. According to Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, retiree benefits average about $18,000 a year. He said the state’s debt should have nothing to do with employees who consistently contribute to their benefits. “Cutting future benefits will not reduce the state’s current debt by a single penny, and skipping payments on the basis of such imagined savings will only compound the current crisis.”

State employees
AFSCME also opposes Quinn’s idea of making current employees, minus public safety, health care and university workers, take four unpaid days off, called furlough days, and pay more into their health care plans.

There’s a contract in place, Lindall said. “The state can’t force changes in any of these areas. Under our contract, they have to negotiate it. If they don’t negotiate those changes, we will enforce our contract in court.”

What else is on the table?
Republicans say everything — from budget cuts to expanded gaming — should be on the table before resorting to an income tax increase.

While Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno agreed with parts of Quinn’s proposed budget such as pension reforms and the removal of a gas tax increase as a revenue source, she called an income tax increase “premature and irresponsible right now.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross agreed that Medicaid spending should be reduced and, he added, lawmakers need to ensure they assess all the possibilities for using federal stimulus funds to help fill in the deficit.

Neither GOP leader would say that the state could pay off its debts without raising taxes, but they both said that tax increases should only be considered when all other options have been exhausted. Both also said that Republicans would be less wary of a tax increase if it would have a set end date.

Expanded gaming as a revenue source isn’t dead, either. Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, said the state still should consider leasing the Illinois Lottery to a private entity to raise money, which has been tried before. Radogno agreed that the state should look to the “voluntary activity of gambling” for increased revenues.

Democrats also have been considering expanding gaming as a revenue source, although Cullerton said he would not intend to expand gaming as a way to pay for a capital construction plan. He did say gaming could be used to lessen the need for an income tax increase.

We'll talk more about capital plans soon.

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