By Jamey Dunn with Meredith Colias contributing
Budget bills from both legislative chambers could emerge as early as next week.
“The clock started ticking today. We have two weeks left, for all practical purposes, to get it done,” said Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter, who is a key player in the budgeting process in his chamber. The spring session is scheduled to adjourn on March 31. “We can’t miss a beat as we go forward,” he said, adding that legislators working on the budget in the Senate hope to get a bill or bills passed through committee next week. “Nobody knows what form it’s going to be in as of yet.”
While he said he doesn’t know the specifics yet, Trotter said he knows many in the Senate would like to keep education cuts as shallow as possible. “I don’t think there’s anyone in this chamber, or even across the [Capitol] rotunda, who feel that cutting $400 million out of the education budget is the way we should be doing business in this state. If we want a viable state, we certainly have to have an educated community to get those jobs and to want to stay in the state of Illinois. So cutting dollars out of K-12 and in higher education — another 5 percent out of higher education — is not the way to achieve that goal. So many of us are looking at how to put dollars back in there.”
Lewistown Democratic Rep. William Davis, who is the chair of the House education budget committee, said the committee has about $6.5 billion to work with, the same amount that it received last year. In recent years, House leaders have given committees lump sums and then asked them to determine how the money will be spent in their areas of state government. Because of cuts, general state aid to schools has been prorated over the last two years, leaving schools with smaller payments near the end of the fiscal year. In Fiscal Year 2013, general aid was prorated at 89 percent. Davis said that if the same amount of money were allocated this year, the proration would be set at 86 percent. That means the state would fall 14 percent short of meeting the foundation funding level, which is $6,119 per student. “I would say that my priority as chair is to try to keep general state aid level,” Davis said. But he added, “It’s going to be very difficult to not have to make some cuts somewhere.” Davis said he and other budget committee chairs hope to pass bills out of their committees next week. However, he said, that they may be shell bills with no specific language in them.
Trotter said those working on the budget in the Senate are not doling out set amounts to different areas of the state budget but instead are trying to find savings where they can and weigh different areas of spending against one anther. “It’s called prioritizing, and that’s how you have to do a budget.” He said that he and others realize that it will likely be impossible to avoid any cuts to education. “We’re broke. I mean, you can’t get past that. And certainly there has to be some reductions. It’s called just being smarter with our money that we have.” He said they are focusing on some personnel cost increases in Quinn’s proposed budget but do not plan to skip out on appropriating money for raises negotiated in the state’s new contract with union workers. “The raises — if they’re, of course, by union contract — we have to do the raises.”
Trotter said he hopes that both chambers can take a broad look at the budget and try to problem-solve. He said Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn have been meeting to discuss the budget.
A spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said Radogno had not been invited to any budget meetings with the governor.
“The House is known to look at things in silos. Hopefully as these next couple weeks advance, we can maybe bust into those silos and look at some other things,” Trotter said. “As we know, the budget is a whole, not just all these little parts to it.”
He echoed the complaints heard from Senate Democrats in recent years that budget cuts are hurting those who most need help from the state. “Many of us feel the most vulnerable ones are being attacked. Last year it was health care; this year it is education,” Trotter said. “Why do you go to these programs? It’s like the old joke: because that’s where the money is. But at the same time, that is where [the most vulnerable people] are, too. We need to find a balance, and I think we can.”