Friday, May 29, 2009

Too many moving parts

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell contributing
Plan A failed before it even got to the House floor for an official vote Friday.

Democrats said they don’t have enough support for a temporary income tax increase without Republican votes, so rank-and-file legislators were sent home early while leaders met to hammer out Plan B behind closed doors. Meanwhile, different plans to expand gaming and restructure state taxes to change the way the state funds education were floating around in the Senate. But that chamber went home early, too, leaving many legislators to see the May 31st adjournment date slipping away as no combination of revenue and spending options appear within reach.

House Democrats emerged from a closed-door meeting this afternoon with reports of competing priorities. Rep. Monique Davis of Chicago described it this way: “Some people want a tax increase. Other people don’t want a tax increase. Some people want a smaller tax increase. Others want it a little larger. Some don’t want to bypass the pension payment plan. Some people want to make the pension payment. So we’re absolutely all over the board.” She said House Speaker Michael Madigan is letting his members decide. “I think speaker’s doing what he does and that’s let everyone make up their own minds and their own decisions, but we’re going to have to realize what those decisions mean.”

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said Democrats don’t need GOP votes. They could do it on their own. “They’ve got 70 votes — 70 votes. Does anybody in this building think that if the speaker really wants to do this, he can’t do it? Everybody knows that if the speaker wants to get something done, he puts 60 votes on.”

Even if a majority of Democrats or Republicans agreed to raise the state income tax, the General Assembly would still have to cut spending, according to assistant Majority Leader Frank Mautino of Spring Valley.

But they can’t agree on where to scale back, either. That’s partially because Democrats say one of the only places left to cut is from the part of the budget that provides grants to community services, including everything from programs for AIDS patients to after-school clubs. But individual legislators don’t want to stop funding projects or programs in their districts.

“The state budget has become this mosaic of all these individual grant programs that even in times of crisis, we can’t move away from,” said Rep. Marlow Colvin, a Chicago Democrat, adding in frustration, “so it’s ridiculous.”

Mautino added: “There have been uncomfortable votes in the General Assembly, but never a hard vote. Any vote you make this year, someone gets hurt.”

House Democrats do agree that lawmakers can’t balance the state budget solely but cutting spending. “We don’t have enough money for a full year at the levels there at this year,” said spokesman Steve Brown.

Among the alternative plans being considered is minimizing the budget to reflect the level of revenue available. That would include approving lump sums of state funding to agencies, which would then have to decide how to spread the money around to keep the lights on and the doors open until the money ran out. It’s expected that they would have to return to the Capitol to ask for more money early next year.

“I see leaving Springfield with a budget that reflects exactly what we have and what we’re willing to vote for in revenue,” Mautino said, later adding, “We’re just all trying to find something that will keep services running and provide the least amount of pain possible because there’s going to be pain — no matter what we do.”

Across the rotunda, Sen. John Sullivan, a downstate Democrat, said as the day progressed, it appeared more likely that the legislature would resort to a budget based solely on revenues available. But he wasn’t happy about it. “If we go past the 31st without a full budget being passed, all we’ve done is put off the inevitable,” he said. “We’re going to have to come back at some time and face reality.”

Both chambers will resume business Saturday, potentially, with Plans B and beyond.

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