Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The puzzle falls apart

By Bethany Jaeger, Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Renewed hope and high spirits defined the transition from impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich to Gov. Pat Quinn early this year, but frustration and gridlock have stained the end of the fiscal year.

Today marked the last day of fiscal year 2009. After a string of strange events, the legislature left town with no date certain to return. And Quinn would not specify how he would proceed, whether by calling special sessions or by holding more meetings with the top four legislative leaders behind closed doors. Nor would he address whether he would allow the state to shut down if a budget weren’t in place by the time the state ran out of money to pay its bills. According to the comptroller’s office, July 15 is a key date for the first wave of state payroll in the new fiscal year. But a spending plan would need to be in place by about July 9 or 10 to have enough time to process expenditures.

The legislature’s day started with a protest of sorts in an attempt to block House members from entering the chamber. Statehouse police removed eight individuals from the Service Employees International Union as they rallied outside the chamber and chanted, “Raise taxes now.”

Despite the governor’s wishes, the legislature didn’t even consider raising taxes today. Lawmakers, instead, sent him pieces of what Quinn dubs a “half-baked budget” that would mean drastic cuts to human services and, in some cases, has already resulted in layoffs and program cuts within community-based services. Quinn said he would veto the spending plan.

“We must not put off decisions for later in the summer or the fall or next winter," he said during a last-minute budget address before both chambers. "That’s not what adults do. They confront tough challenges. They meet those challenges with the best that they come up on behalf of the common good.”

And he gained one more reason to veto the so-called 50 percent budget late in the day. It would carry an even larger deficit than anticipated because the legislature failed to approve a short-term borrowing scheme to free up $2.2 billion. Senate Bill 415 actually failed twice tonight.

“Now you’re another $2.2 billion out of whack,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, assistant majority leader from Spring Valley. He added that the legislature has approved the governor’s authority to spend about $26 billion, but lawmakers didn’t approve enough revenue to pay for it. The result? In addition to giving Quinn more reason to use his veto pen, Mautino added that any momentum to override the governor’s veto deflated along with the Senate’s failure to approve the short-term borrowing (background here).

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, sponsor of the borrowing plan, said not fully paying the state's $4 billion contribution into the public employee pension system will cost the state more than if the state borrowed money to make this year's payment.

And in a strange turn of events, Schoenberg confirmed that the governor’s office had called some senators to urge them not to vote for the bill, which the governor had proposed and supported earlier in the day. Schoenberg said members were told the borrowing plan would take pressure off of the legislature to act on more substantial revenue sources, such as an income tax increase.

Sen. Emil Jones III, son of the former Senate president of the same name, was one who changed his vote from a yes to a no. He said he ultimately voted against the borrowing plan to show support for a tax increase and to reject a piecemeal solution to the deficit.

Without the borrowing, Senate President John Cullerton said the spending plan sent to the governor’s desk would carry a $6.2 billion shortfall. Quinn maintains that the deficit is closer to $9.2 billion.

The disagreement is just one sign of the tension between the legislative and executive branches in the past month. They can’t even agree on the size of the deficit, let alone the methods to fill that gap.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said the governor and the legislature had “legitimate differences of opinion” but that they will continue to work through the differences. In the meantime, he said the governor has now received a package of bills that would allow him to spend the amount of money they expect to be available in fiscal year 2010. “The governor’s complaint is that he wants more money to spend,” Madigan said. “The legislature has said, ‘We’re not going to give you authority to spend money when we don’t think that money will be available.’”

Sounding similar to what he said last year when the General Assembly sent an unbalanced budget to then-Gov. Blagojevich, Madigan added, “As is contemplated by the Constitution, the governor has the ability to spend money at his total discretion.”

During his rare address to both chambers, Quinn said, “I’m prepared to stay here all summer to get the job done.” One person in the chamber clapped.

Quinn said the legislature’s spending plan is unbalanced and invites lawsuits. In fact, he cited a court order issued today. According to the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge John Grady’s order requires the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to maintain support as promised for such services as psychiatric treatment, counseling and daycare.

The governor repeatedly said an income tax increase is the only way the state would be able to provide critical services to the most needy citizens. And even with a tax increase, he announced today he would need to scale back spending by another $1 billion, which would be in addition to the $1 billion in cuts he announced in March. Those cuts, he said, could come in the form of a dozen furlough days for state workers and 2,200 layoffs, as well as possible closure of state facilities. Closing prisons or other facilities, however, wouldn’t result in immediate savings because the process requires an intentionally long review by a legislative panel and the public.

Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said she agrees with the governor, but his words could be falling on deaf ears. "He’s laying down the gauntlet, and he’s absolutely right," she said. "But I don’t think he changed a single mind or a single vote."

Some Republicans, including two gubernatorial candidates, Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Matt Murphy of Palatine, said tax increases during an economic recession would cost more jobs and encourage more people to leave the state. Murphy suggested starting all over again. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno proposed a temporary budget that would fund services at the levels of two years ago, which she said was the “closest thing we’ve had to a balanced budget in recent years.”

Cullerton was in favor of buying some time, he said, to allow Republicans to come around to supporting an income tax increase and to continue to pursue long-term pension and Medicaid reforms. And the governor could sign the capital construction program for roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure.

The construction program, however, is still in the lurch. Quinn said again this morning that he’s still tying the capital bill to an operating budget, meaning he’s unlikely to sign the bills into law without a balanced budget in place. The construction program was approved by the legislature last month, but it finally sent the bills to the governor's desk last night.

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