Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quinn: Legislature should return next week

By Bethany Jaeger, Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration is starting a full-court press to pressure state lawmakers into approving an income tax increase to help avoid catastrophic cuts, highlighting cuts to human services. The General Assembly approved a bare bones budget at the end of May that would only fund community services by half and, according to the governor’s office, would still carry a $9.2 billion deficit. But the same question remains that loomed May 31: How will Quinn recruit nearly 30 more representatives to support a tax increase when they rejected the idea two weeks ago?

All four top Democratic and Republican leaders are scheduled to meet with Quinn in Chicago tomorrow, when they could talk about whether the General Assembly will be called back to Springfield next week, as Quinn urged. That would leave about one week before the new fiscal year starts and when an operating budget would need to be in place.

Quinn still urges the need to enact a state income tax increase. However, his proposal to temporarily increase the state income tax fell 18 votes short in the House May 31. He now needs to gain 29 more votes to get up to the supermajority needed after May 31.

While enough Democrats in the Senate approved two versions of an income tax increase last month, House Democrats have said they need Republican support before they’d be able to approve new revenue sources. Republicans, however, continue to demand major reforms to the state’s public employee pension system and Medicaid program and other efficiencies before they’ll consider a tax increase.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross’s spokeswoman, Sara Wojcicki, said the GOP Caucus has a series of reform measures (about 31 bills), most of which have been bottled up by Democratic leadership. For instance, House Republicans would target the practice of rolling over the current year’s bills to the next fiscal year, allowing officials to claim the budget is balanced when it actually doesn’t cover expenses. House Bill 4095 would require the state to set new accounting benchmarks before an operating budget could be deemed “balanced.” House Bill 4097 would ban the state from rolling over payments to Medicaid providers and state employee and retiree health benefits.

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, says her caucus has proposed reforms during the past six years and hasn’t seen progress, including during the last few weeks of meetings between legislative leaders and the governor. “There have been long discussions. Other than that, we haven’t seen much.”

She adds that Radogno believes the cuts to human services highlighted by Quinn’s administration today would be “irresponsible” and that the budget should be looked at in its entirety, not just in one service delivery area.

The legislature has yet to send the so-called bare bones budget to the governor’s desk. But Quinn’s chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, said agencies and community service providers have to act as if the budget situation won’t change before July 1.

Stermer met with human service providers this morning in Chicago and said that the bare bones budget would still fall $9.2 billion short of normal spending levels. He said that would result in layoffs of more than 100,000 people working for community-based social services and up to 10,000 state workers.

State employee unions oppose the idea of laying off workers or asking them to take unpaid days off to help stave the severity of budget cuts. Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said in Springfield today: “There is nothing that would alleviate the threat of layoffs short of a tax increase. We don’t have a tax increase, there will be substantial layoffs.” He said even if every state employee worked the entire year unpaid, the state would only save $3 billion, far short of the $9 billion deficit projected by the governor’s office. “That may make some people feel good to think they’re inflicting pain on somebody, but that is not a solution to the problem,” Bayer said. “There is only one solution to the problem.” He referred to tax increases.

Other possible consequences of the bare bones budget laid out by Quinn’s office include:
  • Giving foster parents half the money they currently receive to help care for foster children.
  • Eliminating daycare for more than 5,250 children of low-income working parents.
  • Tripling foster children case loads for Department of Children and Family Service workers.
  • Closing 15 DCFS field offices.
  • Ending addiction treatment for more than 20,800 clients.
  • Closing six state-run psychiatric hospitals.
  • Eliminating multiple preventative health care services such as vaccinations for children and cancer screening programs.
  • Cutting financial aid to college students by $275 million.

Quinn’s office also said Illinois would lose $2 billion in federal matching funds and some stimulus money.

In Springfield, a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union rallied outside the state Capitol in protest. Gail Hamilton, a home health aide, said if the cuts in human services went through, as many as 80,000 parents would have no place to take their children while they worked. And about 40,000 senior citizens would lose access to home health services and, potentially, end up in more costly nursing home care.

The group staked out offices of representatives who voted “no” on raising the income tax last month. Today, it was two Republicans from the Springfield area, Reps. Raymond Poe and Rich Brauer. On Monday, they targeted two downstate Democrats, Reps. Brandon Phelps and John Bradley, as well as Chicago suburban Republican Rep. Beth Coulson. Last week’s focus was all northern Illinois Democrats: Reps. James Brosnahan, Jack Franks, Michael Zalewski and Kevin McCarthy.

Hamilton said conversations with legislators have been “infuriating.”

“They’ll admit to us that they know we need a tax increase, but when it comes down to it, they don’t have the guts to go through with it.”

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