Thursday, July 09, 2009

Looks good for capital, not so much for budget

By Bethany Jaeger
It’s taken a decade, but Gov. Pat Quinn said that come Monday, the state would have a major infrastructure program in place to help spur the economy and send people back to work.

Downstate legislators who met with the governor Thursday afternoon in the Executive Mansion expressed bittersweet sentiments: The governor would sign the long-awaited public works program to send laborers and others back to work, but thousands of other public employees and the people they serve are on the brink of losing their jobs and their access to critical aid. That's because the governor and the legislature still haven’t enacted a balanced operating budget, despite a new fiscal year that started July 1.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, for instance, is in a downstate area in need of economic development. However, he also has a prison in his district that could lose employees under Quinn's plan to cut spending by an additional $1 billion. Enacting the capital bill wouldn’t prevent layoffs of 1,000 Department of Correction employees, he said, adding that such significant layoffs might not save as much money as needed to cover the increased overtime costs.

The General Assembly is scheduled to return to the capital city Tuesday, about the same time the comptroller’s office needs to process checks so the first round of state employees would get paid on time. The governor, facing doubt about whether he can persuade more legislators to support an income tax increase to fill what he says is a $9.2 billion budget deficit, said he would consider Plan B, even if that includes a temporary spending plan.

“I’m open to anything that gets us moving in a positive direction, whatever it takes,” Quinn said. That could include a five-month budget so he could continue to lobby for an income tax increase.

But, asked Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, at what level would the five-month budget be based? Would it be based on the $26 billion plan already approved by the legislature but partially vetoed by the governor? Or would it be the $28 billion originally proposed by Quinn?

In May, the legislature approved along partisan lines a budget that reduced funding for human services by half of what the governor proposed. Quinn then vetoed much of that spending plan and said that regardless of whether an income tax increase passes, he would still have to make about $1 billion in cuts. He recently announced a general plan that lacked specifics, although legislators said today they hope by Tuesday to receive more details.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said a five-month budget is risky because it would assume that the legislature would approve an income tax increase before the end of the year. “Then you’ve spent for five months based on revenue you may or may not get. I think it’s very risky.”

He added, however, that it might be the most politically palatable option for many legislators because by this fall, incumbents would know whether they faced a serious challenger in the next election.

Either way, Eddy said, Quinn faces a “triple negative” in trying to persuade lawmakers to vote for a tax hike because the new revenue would not prevent further budget cuts. “It would be nice to vote for a tax increase — if you have to — and go home and talk about all the new wonderful programs you’re going to start. This combination is: Vote for revenue, borrow $2.2 billion, make $1 billion in cuts above the cuts that have already been made. That’s a pretty tough sell.”

Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, said he appreciates that Quinn is showing some direction in where he might cut, but he’s concerned that the governor is making broad statements to stir up local residents so they pressure their legislators to approve an income tax increase. The GOP has remained mostly united on opposing a tax hike without action on other cuts and what they see as reforms because they fear giving billions of new dollars to a group of leaders which he said “can’t control themselves.”

Legislators said they could be in session Tuesday through Thursday, although several expressed doubt about how they would solve the budget impasse by then. “I think it’s going to be a challenge for all the pieces to come together,” said Rep. Bob Flider, a Mount Zion Democrat.

After the legislature in May overwhelmingly approved the first major infrastructure program in a decade, Quinn said he wouldn’t sign the package into law until he received a balanced operating budget on his desk. With little consensus on how to balance a severely out-of-whack budget, the capital program remained in limbo and jeopardized federal matching funds.

The governor said today he would sign the capital program into law on Monday. He previously said on May 31 that the lack of an operating budget would hurt the state’s bond rating, making it more expensive to borrow money.

Thursday afternoon, he said the state still needed both. “I think we need to have a good budget that is a balanced budget that’s fair and decent. Together with a good jobs program, we can get Illinois focused on economic recovery and budget stabilization.”

Shovels might not move dirt for weeks, maybe months. We’ll have more on that and other reaction soon.

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