Tuesday, July 14, 2009

12-month budget deal within reach

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn contributing
The top four legislative leaders and the governor have a general agreement to work toward a full 12-month budget, as opposed to a partial-year budget that would last only five months, without raising income taxes.

But even with a general agreement, the state still is likely to face a deficit that the legislature would have to address this fall or winter, possibly during its annual fall “veto” session. The size of that deficit, however, is still unknown or, at least, debatable. The governor’s most recent estimate is a $9.2 billion gap in revenues versus spending.

The leaders met twice with the governor Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said after the second meeting that while the state would still have a massive backlog of unpaid bills, the revenue outlook could improve with activity from the federal stimulus package, the statewide construction program enacted Monday and other longer-term reforms to Medicaid and pension liabilities sought by Republicans.

“So we have to wait and see how the reforms and how the stimulus elements come together, and that may improve our revenue position,” she said. “I don’t know that. But I do know, as of tonight, we should avoid having a meltdown in state government.”

Not all were so sure. “They’re close," said Rep. Art Turner, a Chicago Democrat, "but … close counts in horseshoes. This is politics. We still haven’t gotten there, yet.”

The new fiscal year started July 1. Layoff notices to state employees went out July 7. Numerous human services providers that get state funding have reduced programs and laid off their own employees because their shoestring budgets can’t survive without knowing when they would receive their next state payments.

The general agreement among legislative leaders includes enacting a 12-month budget that relies on revenue from refinancing state debt (Senate Bill 1609, which already was enacted), sweeping dedicated funds (SB 1433) and borrowing more money. The short-term borrowing scheme has changed from its original version. Instead of floating $2.2 billion in bonds, the state would float $3.6 billion. The governor also would still have to cut an additional $1 billion in spending. The legislature would give him wide discretion to cut as he saw fit.

The short-term borrowing would help the state make its $4 billion payment into the public employee pension system this fiscal year. The borrowing would free up money that would be used to prevent severe cuts to community-based services. While numbers vary, one estimate by a House Democrat is that the new budget deal could result in service providers receiving about a 13 percent cut, as opposed to a 50 percent cut, as previously approved. The governor vetoed that measure (SB 1197).

Human services
So instead of the so-called 50 percent budget for human services, providers would get about 87 percent of what they received in state support last fiscal year.

“We’re getting very close to what [the governor] was looking for,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross.

But, he added, the situation has been painted as more severe than it needed to be. “I think the approach a month ago was to attempt to scare legislators into a tax increase. I didn’t think that was a good approach,” Cross said. “I think at the end of the day, [cuts to human services] will not be nearly as severely as the governor portrayed six weeks ago.”

Both minority leaders and Senate President John Cullerton added that state employees and service providers now need reassurance that they’ll still get paid. “Unfortunately, some people come to believe that they’re going to be shut down, that their not-for-profit agencies are not going to be able to operate,” Cullerton said. “And that’s been unfortunate because that was never the case, never had to be the case.”

Under the new version of a budget deal, about $2.2 billion of the short-term borrowing scheme would benefit human services. Quinn would be able to decide how to spend the additional $1.3 billion that the legislature is expected to add to the borrowing scheme Wednesday.

Income tax update
An income tax increase temporarily is off the table. Quinn recently said he would delay his campaign for a tax increase until the fall or winter. Fewer votes would be needed in January. And some legislators have requested the governor “tone down the rhetoric” for the next few months, which would allow them to find out whether they face serious opponents in the 2010 elections before being called to vote on a tax increase.

But the idea of a tax hike still has support, particularly among Senate Democrats.

“It’s not dead,” said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat. “It may be on pause, but it’s definitely not dead.”

Sooner or later, he added, state government will have to have a “revenue infusion” to keep operating. Cullerton gave a sneak peak into his campaign for a tax increase when he seeks support from Republicans. He said if the legislature had approved an income tax increase this year, the state could have used the revenue to pay its backlogged bills rather than borrowing money to do so. “That would be a conservative, responsible response to a fiscal crisis,” he said. “That’s what our income tax increase could be characterized as.”

After spending most of the day in closed-door meetings, some legislators headed to the Major League Baseball All Star baseball game in St. Louis, where President Barack Obama was scheduled to toss the ceremonial opening pitch. The legislative leaders are scheduled to meet again at 11 a.m. Wednesday. And they expect to take action on parts of the budget deal as early as Wednesday afternoon.

AFSCME lawsuit
If things fall into place tomorrow, then some groups of state workers would be paid up to a few days late.

In an attempt to ensure that state workers continue to get paid if things fall apart and a budget is not in place, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 filed a lawsuit today in St. Clair County. The union made a similar move in 2007 when the legislature failed to produce a budget by the end of the fiscal year. AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said, “Unfortunately, we’re in the same boat.”

The lawsuit would apply to all state employees. “The fundamental legal principles are the same for any state employee,” Lindall said. “If you work, you are entitled to be paid in full and on time for that work.” He added that if lawmakers can agree on a budget in the next few days, the suit would not be necessary.

1 comment:

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