Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dynamic before budget negotiations

By Bethany Jaeger
Video by Hilary Russell

Rod Blagojevich is no longer governor, and it’s easy to assume that the atmosphere within the Capitol has done a 180 with two new legislative leaders and a new governor. But today’s speeches by three legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn before a business luncheon in Springfield showed little if any concrete points of agreement about how they’re going to lead Illinois out of what Quinn deems a fiscal crisis.

The state faces between an $11 billion and $12 billion deficit next fiscal year, according to the governor’s office and the legislature’s economic forecasting arm. Quinn entered the “lion’s den” this morning and afternoon by first speaking to the Illinois Education Association, a teachers’ union that strongly opposes his proposed pension reforms, and then speaking to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Illinois Manufacturers Association, business groups that oppose a state income tax hike.

“The notion that some [politicians] of both parties are running around saying we can get out of this without raising the income tax — they’re living in a dream world,” Quinn said to reporters after his speech.

Much of the speeches repeated statements heard after Quinn first proposed his budget in March. But the context has changed. The Illinois General Assembly now has 25 days to try to enact a state operating budget, finance a major construction program and approve major ethics reforms. My audio recordings failed today, so what follows is a summary of each speech:

Gov. Pat Quinn: He still wants to raise the income tax and increase the personal exemption to shield low-income families from the increase, but he said he’s willing to negotiate on the personal exemption. He also still wants to create a two-tiered pension system for teachers, meaning new hires would receive a less generous pension benefit. According to the Associated Press, however, Quinn used a speech before the Illinois Education Association to reveal that he dropped his proposal to require teachers’ to pay more into their pensions by 2 percent per paycheck. “We didn’t want that to derail a fundamental reform we must adopt, and that’s having a two-tiered system for the new state employees and new teachers,” Quinn later said. “They’re still going to get a pension, a very generous pension. It just won’t be as generous as what currently exists.” He also said he would not cut Medicaid, which is something Republicans support.

House Speaker Michael Madigan: He said he’s been meeting with small groups of Democrats and asking them to rank their most important programs, narrowing the list of places members are willing to cut. The approach, he said, was abnormal because they have to accept a “zero-based budget.” He then cast an ominous cloud over negotiations for a major capital construction program by saying he is not inclined to meet with House Minority Leader Tom Cross because, he said, “when the rubber hits the road, he’s not going to be there.” Madigan and Cross have clashed in the past on everything from gaming to working with Blagojevich. Republican votes are needed in the House to approve major spending or borrowing plans, but the ongoing icy relationships could have a chilling effect on other negotiations.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross: He did not speak at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association luncheon, but he did address the media later in the Capitol. He said he would “want no part” in a capital plan that financed construction projects by increasing the state income tax or the motor fuel tax. While he hasn’t meet with Madigan, Cross said he has met with both Senate leaders and the governor and talked about revenue ideas. “The bottom line is we’re all talking,” Cross said. “And they’re, I think, fairly productive talks of narrowing down some revenue streams to raise about $1 billion. I think it’s all good.” He specifically mentioned conversations about the House’s idea to legalize video poker and to the Senate’s idea to privatize the Illinois Lottery. Why the speaker spoke out against working with him, he said, is baffling. “I think with the speaker, there’s a pattern when he doesn’t want to do something himself, he looks for a villain or for somebody else to blame. And history will show that we are for capital.”

Senate President John Cullerton: He said he agrees with Republicans that the state should trim spending before resorting to raising income taxes. However, if the state still lacked enough revenue to maintain the same level of core services, he said he will ask the GOP to help approve revenue enhancements. Some Democratic members within his caucus also are working on a plan to expand gaming to raise money, but gaming expansions have been tried and failed multiple times in the past few years. The difference this time is that Cullerton has said he will not peg new gaming revenues to pay for construction plans. That could ease some political pressure on the size of the plan, which plagued previous efforts. Madigan has been cool to the idea of expanded gaming, although his chamber did advance a measure to legalize and tax video poker machines in taverns.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno: She opposes income tax increases and said the state first needs to cut spending, find efficiencies and grow the economy with a capital plan that creates jobs. She agreed with Quinn’s proposal to create a two-tiered system for newly hired teachers as a way to control costs in the long run. She added that she supports Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission’s ideas to reform state government, including campaign contribution limits. She said she “would vote for all of them as is as opposed to having nothing.”

Radogno also said she’s been working with Cullerton and Quinn and mentioned a new chemistry within the Capitol, which bodes well for a more productive state government. “There’s hope that we can actually accomplish something,” she said.

Yet, nothing’s truly off the table right now. The legislature and the governor have a lot of negotiating to do before they’re able to enact an operating budget or a capital construction plan within 25 days, but that’s likely to require all four legislative leaders to start meeting with Quinn in the same room soon.

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