Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cross and Madigan partner on budget

By Jamey Dunn

After years of little-to-no compromise when it came to the state’s finances, House Democratic and Republican leaders have teamed up to push a lean budget.

In a rare move, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Minority Leader Tom Cross testified together in committee today and called on lawmakers to first fund the state’s annual built-in costs — yearly payments to the employee health care and pension funds, money that goes toward Illinois’ borrowing debts and some fund transfers that are required by law.

The two legislative leaders said the state should address those costs before divvying up money to other areas of government. Madigan acknowledged that splitting up the money left after addressing those annual costs would mean cuts for most areas of government and tough choices for the budgeting committees that will be making the spending decisions. The House is working off of a revenue estimate for next fiscal year that is lower than those given by the Senate and Gov. Pat Quinn.

Under the plan, K-12 education would see about $200 million in cuts from the current year’s general revenue fund spending. Madigan said the committee that takes up education spending would have about $6.8 billion to dole out for fiscal year 2012, less than both the State Board of Education’s request of $7.6 billion and Quinn’s budget recommendation of $7.2 billion. Education will also see a reduction of about $400 million in federal stimulus spending, which will not be available next fiscal year. Under the House plan, human services spending from the general revenue fund would be reduced by about $150 million, although House budgeteers say the end of an escalated federal match for Medicaid dollars in June means health and human services could potentially take a larger hit.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a school district superintendent and member of the House committee that will plan K-12 education budgeting, said that it will be difficult to make the cuts that the House plan would require because committee members hear from representatives of so many worthy programs. “They all make pretty good cases. It’s just a matter of making tough decisions with limited resources.” Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican, said members of local school districts would likely not be happy about the potential cuts. But after waiting month on state payments, administrators are looking for some certainty when making their budgets. Cross agreed that some certainty may soften the blow of cuts. “You may not like the number, but at least you can plan your budget based on the number you’re going to get or should get under this budget.”

Madigan shot down several of Quinn’s budget ideas, including a plan to save money by consolidating school districts and a proposal to bring in revenue by decoupling the state’s tax code from a federal benefit for businesses. “I’m not planning to attempt to do those things. … I have no comment on them. I just don’t plan to pursue them,” he said. He added that the governor’s proposal to borrow money to pay off the backlog of overdue bills has little support among lawmakers.

“The governor’s budget is proposed in February, allowing 90 days of discussion and development before the legislature settles on a final FY2012 budget. The entire purpose of a proposed line-item budget is to start a conversation, a dialogue with the legislature over the budget for the next year. The governor states his priorities and areas in which he feels funding can be reduced; it is then the legislature’s job to enact or alter these proposals to create the final budget. The governor looks forward to continued work with lawmakers on the budgeting process, which should result in a transparent, detailed line-item budget,” Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said in a written statement.

Madigan said Quinn sought a continuation of the broad budgeting authority that legislators gave him for the last and current fiscal year. Lawmakers passed lump-sum budgets for state agencies and left Quinn with the decisions of where to cut. The speaker said that he did not think legislators would approve such a plan again and that this year the process would be “driven” by the legislature. “I would presume that as we work through this process, [Quinn] and the budget office may have suggestions — requests — and I’m sure that we’re interested in taking his requests — his suggestions.”

Previously, Madigan has accused House Republicans of contributing no proposals to solve the state’s financial crisis, calling them the “party of no.” Today, he said a lack of funds led to his truce with Cross on the budget. Cross, who has often complained that Republicans are left out of the decision making process, said he supports Madigan’s efforts. “The idea of limiting our spending to what we have is something that many of us have been advocating for a number of years.”

While Cross and Madigan are seeing eye-to-eye on the budget, neither presented a plan to pay off the backlog of bills in the short term. They both advocate that any money the state might bring in beyond the House’s ‘conservative’ revenue estimate would be spent on the unpaid bills. “We may be on the conservative side, and that’s fine. And we’ll spend less and then we can take care of a good number of bills,” Cross said.

Madigan explained how the House could wield a considerable amount of power in the budgeting process if House Democrats and Republicans can maintain their coalition support for less spending. If the House and Senate cannot agree on budget bills, they would be sent to a conference committee to sort out the differences. The committee would be equal parts of Democrats and Republicans and House and Senate members. Madigan predicted that a budget based on lower revenue projections would win out with support from Senate Republicans. “My expectation in this scenario would be that the House members would vote for the number that [was] approved by the House. And the Senate, I think that the people that would raise the [revenue] numbers would be the Democrats. … They ought to be outvoted.”

Senate Democrats say there is still time for the two chambers to find common ground. “It’s important that everyone focuses on the budget as a lot of tough decisions need to be made in the weeks ahead. The Senate is engaged in the appropriations process and is using a revenue estimate based on the nonpartisan recommendations of the General Assembly’s economic agency. We look forward to working with all caucuses, as we share the same goal, a bipartisan balanced budget,” said John Patterson, a spokesperson for Senate President John Cullerton.

When asked if observers, including legislators, could trust his new-found partnership with Cross to last, Madigan replied: “We all rely upon faith, don’t we? One way or another.”

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