Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Everything in limbo

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell contributing
Illinois’ human service providers, as well as other state contractors, remain in limbo as to whether they’ll receive state funding after July 1. The General Assembly finished its special legislative session this afternoon without sending a spending plan to the governor. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return until Monday afternoon (the Senate won’t be back until Tuesday), which some providers said would be too late. Providers, many of whom rallied at the Capitol yesterday, anticipate having to close their doors or lay off employees without a state operating budget in place by then.

“What’s going on right now is cruel, it’s cynical and it doesn’t need to be happening. And it should have been addressed this week,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said after the legislature adjourned. She added: “There is a lack of clarity, a lack of leadership, in terms of what is going on. And in the meantime, people are dangling in the wind thinking that their lives are going to be inextricably altered.”

She proposed enacting a temporary budget to keep state services going, uninterrupted, and to give service providers more predictability.

Gov. Pat Quinn continues to publicly reject the idea of a temporary budget and said lawmakers still have time to enact a full-year balanced budget within six days. But he said balancing the budget, which he projects will carry a $9.2 billion deficit, will require a two-year income tax increase to generate $4.2 billion. (Comptroller Dan Hynes calculated the deficit at $7 billion.)

Legislative leaders of both political parties have cast doubt on the governor’s ability to gain enough votes in each chamber to approve a tax increase by July 1, although House Minority Leader Tom Cross said a few of his members are leaning toward a tax increase if they see action on other efficiencies and long-term spending reforms first.

Senate Democrats maintain that they approved a version of a permanent income tax increase in House Bill 174, which never got called for a vote in the House. According to Sen. James Meeks, the caucus doesn’t want to give up on the idea of offering property tax relief and increased education funding. Meeks said a temporary increase would result in a permanent increase in two years. “Temporary should scream out to everybody saying, ‘In two years, they’ll be back.’”

There could be more immediate support for a short-term borrowing scheme. A plan backed by Quinn would issue pension obligation notes rather than bonds, which typically are repaid over longer periods of time with higher interest costs. The House advanced the plan, Senate Bill 415, today. It would allow the state to make its full contribution into the public employee pension systems and free up $2.2 billion to help plug the deficit.

“If we get $2 billion to help close the deficit, that’s a good thing,” Quinn said after finishing a series of meetings with all four legislative caucuses. “We’re making progress, but we still have $7 billion to go.”

The governor and all four caucuses appear to agree one goal: to reduce spending by another $1 billion. But they might disagree on how to do that.

Quinn said his administration could save about $125 million by mandating 12 unpaid days off, or furlough days, for state employees, including unionized workers. Layoffs also could be considered, he said, although he added that he wouldn’t pursue layoffs until after he and the General Assembly settled on whether the state would generate new revenues first. “Under our contract, we can lay off employees if we don’t have the money to pay them,” he said.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said union leaders already met with the administration last week and determined that furlough days and layoffs wouldn’t save significant amounts of money. Henry Bayer, Council 31 executive director, said last week that even if every state employee worked the entire year unpaid, the state would only save about $3 billion. Lindall added this afternoon, “Any number of furlough days would be an insignificant savings to the state but a very real reduction in services.”

Cross said his caucus agrees with the need to look for $1 billion in cuts and recommends moratoriums on programs, furlough days and salary freezes, as well as reduced travel budgets.

Capital and recall
Two other items on hold include the $29 billion capital construction program and a provision that would allow voters to decide whether they wanted to change the state Constitution so they could recall the sitting governor.

Quinn said he will not sign the construction program without an operating budget in place. Democratic Sens. Martin Sandoval of Chicago and John Sullivan of Rushville said the capital plan and the operating budget have nothing to do with one another. In a Statehouse news conference, they joined organized labor groups to say Quinn has fallen through on his promise to immediately put people to work. "People are falling off the edge, losing their homes, having a very difficult time making ends meet, and he’s decided to hold the jobs bill as a political football until he gets his tax hike,” Sandoval said, citing the state’s 10.1 percent unemployment rate.

On the other hand, the Senate Democrats have held one of Quinn’s initiatives, House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 31: a recall provision. Senate President John Cullerton said yesterday he would not call the provision for a vote until Quinn signed an ethics package that would limit the amount individuals, businesses and political organizations could donate to candidates. However, the Senate hasn’t even sent the measure, HB 7, to the governor’s desk.

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