Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inch by inch

By Jamey Dunn and Bethany Jaeger
In a pivotal step toward finalizing the capital plan, Gov. Pat Quinn met with Democrat and Republican leaders of both chambers in Quinn’s Statehouse office this afternoon.

Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross met for several hours. But none of them commented to the media after the meeting.

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Cullerton, said it was the first substantial meeting between the four leaders and the governor since he took office. She said that an agreement has been reached between Democrats and Republicans in both chambers and that Cullerton left the meeting confident of a vote on the capital plan coming tomorrow.

Measures to approve new revenue sources and to grant bonding authority to the state are expected to move first. According to Radogno’s spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, the revenue sources will all be included in a single bill. Some Republicans wanted two separate bills so they could avoid taking a difficult vote on expanding gaming.

The bulk of spending will be in a bill that could come up for a vote tomorrow, and some individual projects that still need to be negotiated will be in a later bill. Schuh said that the leaders and Quinn still want to avoid giving out large chunks of money without specifically designating them to projects.

Meanwhile, the House advanced basic parts of the operating budget that would authorize standard spending regardless of whether legislators approved an income tax increase, which Quinn continues to urge as needed. The spending would include money to keep the lights on, as well as funding for education and Medicaid, two areas that have to meet federal requirements to capture economic stimulus funds. Funding contracts for state employee unions also is required.

At least two major questions remain: Will the state fund all $4 billion of its scheduled contribution into the public employee pension systems (a typical year’s contribution would be about $1.2 billion)? And will the legislature resort to increasing the state income tax, outlining budget cuts, or both?

“Without a tax increase, are you going to fund the pensions at normal costs, which means unfunding about $3 billion?” said Rep. Frank Mautino, an assistant majority leader. “And then how do you decide which of the remaining items you’re going to pay for?”

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