Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Closer ... but ...

There’s likely an agreement on the governor’s college tuition tax credit, but there’s no telling whether a slew of pet projects will prevent the overall budget from being ready next week.

The three top Democratic leaders finished their third consecutive week of budget negotiations. This afternoon, Sen. President Emil Jones gave promising comments about getting closer, but how close, he said, depends on whom you’re talking to. “There’s a few minor issues that we’re trying to get taken care of.”

One item that he said has been settled is a version of the governor’s tax credit for college students. The original $90-million idea was to give $1,000 tax credits to families of college freshmen and sophomores who earn at least a “B” average. Jones said the plan would be a “hybrid” of tax credits and state grants, but details about the income eligibility will be announced “at the right time.”

He did say adjourning next week is possible. Budget staffers will continue to meet, but the House won't be back until 4 p.m. Monday. The Senate won't get back to business until Tuesday.

The anything-can-happen attitude was echoed by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie. Her promising sentence was capped off with a “but” and a courtesy smile that hinted she wouldn’t bet her money on it.

“The question is whether all the members are satisfied, and you never can tell,” she said. “Usually what happens is, you think everything’s all set, signed, sealed and delivered, and then there’s some kind of blowup that no one anticipated. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened, and that’s why I’m not making any prediction that we’re out of here on Thursday.”

Republican Rep. David Reis pointed out the closer session gets to the Constitutional deadline of May 31, the more likely budget negotiators are to tighten their belts. He predicted a longer session would cause House Speaker Michael Madigan to apply pressure for Democrats to whittle down their wish lists. Otherwise, if May 31 comes and the budget needs a three-fifths majority to pass, they won’t get all their pet projects.

“He’s playing politics. We’re playing out the clock,” the Republican said.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Repeat offenses

The state agency that is supposed to reduce bureaucracy again has been cited for mismanaging state contracts and failing to provide proof of estimated savings.

Today, Auditor General William Holland issued his most recent audit of Central Management Services, the agency that oversees the state’s communications, property management and employees’ insurance benefits. Continuing a three-year trend, this audit echoes concerns about the way Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration awards contracts. For example, Illinois Issues cited the same concerns in an article one year ago. (See our February 2005 issue.)

The most recent audit of Central Management Services reviews fiscal year 2005, which ended last June 30. Some findings are repeat offenses from the previous year’s audit, which led Holland to report the findings to higher authorities for further investigation.

A primary concerns this time around includes the impact of allowing companies to start projects before contracts were formally filed with the state. “Oversight and public accountability is compromised when large amounts of work are performed and costs incurred before the public is made aware of the specifics of a contract,” the audit says. One vendor had been working six months before the contract was filed with the comptroller’s office.

Another potential hit to public confidence came with the finding, “No documentation was maintained to indicate that a possible conflict of interest was reviewed and resolved.”

One the concerns could even impact next year’s state budget, which is still under negotiation among Democrats. The governor often cites estimated savings as a way to pay for new programs, but auditors said the department lacks documentation to verify the amount the state could save.

The department reported that it agreed with the findings and has made improvements.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Playing politics with money

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Greenville Republican, repeatedly compared the state’s budget to a sinking ship and a half loaf of bread Wednesday. During a House committee meeting, he raised his voice, pounded his fists and utilized a series of quips, but his soliloquies didn’t stop the bill from advancing without GOP support.

Stephens was responding to a Democratic bill that would release $250 million in state funds, which would be doubled by federal matching dollars, to ease backlogged Medicaid payments. The money would be split among hospitals, pharmacists and long-term care facilities. Right now, those Medicaid providers are waiting an average of 77 days for state reimbursement.

Rep. Jay Hoffman, the Collinsville Democrat sponsoring the measure, said the bill would reduce the payment cycle by 23 days for the rest of the fiscal year, which only has two-and-a-half months left. Yet, he said the state has about $1.7 billion in Medicaid bills that carried over from last year. In other words, the $500 million that would be put into the Medicaid system through Hoffman’s bill would be a Band-Aid to cover a deep wound.

Hoffman’s bill resembles this year’s budget negotiations - exclusively Democratic and politically ripe for campaign material. It’s also controversial because it would take $250 million from hundreds of dedicated funds (fund sweeps) and fees that agencies pay into the state’s main checkbook (administrative chargebacks). Two years ago, both parties voted to allow the governor to take money from the special funds, but some of the money has been held since by state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, who happens to be Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s opponent in November.

Martin Noven, Topinka’s deputy chief of staff for law and policy, said the fund sweeps are unconstitutional. He said the General Assembly, not the governor, should decide which funds and how much to sweep. He said if the General Assembly approved the specific funds and the amount to be swept, then the treasurer would oblige. Hoffman’s bill would do that. If both chambers passed the same version of the bill, Noven said the treasurer would release the money.

The House isn’t scheduled to meet again until Tuesday, April 25. The full Senate might not return until a week later, May 2. In the meantime, Medicaid providers wait, and wait and wait.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Scandal fatigue

A federal jury found former Gov. George Ryan, a Kankakee Republican, guilty of using public office for personal gain during his tenure as secretary of state and then as governor. Some think it’s a black eye for state government. Others think it’s a golden nugget of opportunity to kick Republicans while they’re down.

The political spin doesn’t do anything positive for voters when they enter the polls this November. “Neither party has any high ground in the upcoming election,” says House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, “and I don’t say that in a good way.”

Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said voters have “scandal fatigue” and are turned off by such mudslinging.

Yet, lo and behold, the Ryan verdict made conditions ripe for politicians to connect the dots between previous scandals and current candidates.

Right after the verdict was announced Monday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a prepared statement. Although he didn’t mention state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka as his GOP opponent, he painted the existing Republican officeholders as continuing Ryan’s corrupt administration.

Topinka’s prepared statement avoided mentioning Blagojevich, but said it’s time to restore public trust. “We can begin that process by ending pay-to-play politics, eliminating no-bid contracts, restricting the influence of lobbyists, and increasing transparency in political campaigns and the business of government. Most importantly, we can lead by example in promoting a culture in Illinois that celebrates accountability, openness, and the truth.”

Let’s see if anyone can actually do that, for the voters’ sakes.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

No joking matter

House Minority Leader Tom Cross began Wednesday’s brief day of business with a question about what was going on with the legislative schedule. The previous afternoon, the Senate adjourned for two weeks while Democratic leaders could continue negotiating the budget. The meetings have excluded the Republican Party since January, but Cross said he just wanted to know how to plan for the next few weeks.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan politely replied, “It’s my hope, shared by the governor and Sen. (Emil) Jones, that first week in May would be the last week. That’s our hope." In a jovial tone, he continued, “Tom, I’d like to share with you that we have spoken of your absence. We would like to have you there (in the budget meetings in the governor’s office).”

Cross, returning the lighthearted comments, hinted that his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, also might like to be present in the meetings.

Flat out laughing, Madigan joked, “The governor would particularly like to have Sen. Watson in the meetings. He seems to enjoy Sen. Watson in those meetings.”

That would be an interesting dynamic, but unlikely to be productive for a budget that doesn’t need any Republican votes to pass. Democrats, meanwhile, will continue to debate how to divvy up the money. The House is expected return for two days next week, two days the last week in April, and, if needed, a few days in May, well before the Constitutional deadline of May 31.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The wait just got longer

The governor can check off a few items from his to-do list, but many more remain as the Senate adjourned until Tuesday, April 25. That’s more than two weeks after the original deadline to pass next year's budget.

First, there was a $10-million pilot program to reduce classroom sizes in some schools throughout the state. It passed both chambers.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed another $10-million plan, one to help about 7,000 uninsured veterans get health insurance and access to medical clinics. The program would start in September, if passed by the House and signed by the governor. It has yet to be called for debate in the House.

The governor's plan to help address a nursing shortage also passed the Senate with few nays. Nurse educators would receive $5,000 to help repay their student loans. The $1.3-million plan also would include more than a dozen nursing school fellowships and a nursing center that would focus on recruitment efforts. It's still waiting for debate in the House, too.

Tuesday, a House committee did approve a scaled-down version of the school construction plan without Republican votes. It resembles the Senate's doomed attempt last week. The House proposal would authorize $500 million in bonds rather than $1 billion. The new plan would still release $150 million to 23 school districts that have been put on hold since 2002, as well as start chipping away at the long list of districts that have applied for money since then. Again, there is no dedicated revenue source other than taking $40 million from the state's main checkbook each year. Without Republican support, the revised bill could just be a way for Democrats to add a politically palatable vote to their records during election season.

The real hold up, though, is between the governor and the Democratic caucuses within the two chambers. They have been in budget negotiations this afternoon. Yet, an agreement that puts aside partisan politics and settles the rest of the budget is precarious, given the latest House and Senate schedules.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Stalemate on construction bonds

Put another bucket under the leaky roof. Construction projects for nearly 300 schools and for numerous state roads will have to wait, at least, a little longer.

The same day lightning struck the Illinois Senate sound system, lawmakers of the high chamber crashed a budget that would pay for schools, roads, bridges and highways. The money has been locked in political debates for three years.

Thursday’s debate, although speckled with colorful quotes, felt like it spanned years. Democrats and Republicans voted along partisan lines, which caused the measures to fall a few votes short of passing. Republicans rejected the idea for two reasons: They disagreed with borrowing more than $4 billion without defining a revenue source to repay the debt, and they feared none of the money would benefit projects in their districts. Sen. John Jones, a Mount Vernon Republican, summarized the GOP argument in one sentence: “You may trust this governor on this issue, but I don’t.”

Democrats did not identify a specific revenue source, but said increased revenue from sales taxes and gas taxes would be enough to repay most of the debt.

Democrat Senate President Emil Jones spoke directly to his Republican colleagues during committee. “If you really want a revenue stream, introduce a bill with the taxes you want to raise. We feel we do not need that at this time.”

About $1 billion of the borrowing would have gone to school construction, including $148-million’s-worth of projects in 24 districts that have been delayed for three years. The borrowing would have also designated $751 million for 275 more districts that have applied for construction money since fiscal year 2003.

The second portion of the plan – for roads, bridges, highways and higher-education construction projects – would have relied on $3.8 billion in borrowing.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Governor in Springfield

Gov. Rod Blagojevich met with two Democratic leaders in the Statehouse today to discuss the delayed budget. House Speaker Michael Madigan emerged from closed doors with a smile, but nothing to share with reporters. Senate President Emil Jones came out to say they would meet again Thursday, as there are some “major items the leaders have to resolve.” He said two of the governor's education proposals are still on the table, but they may be modified. As proposed, the Democratic governor wants to offer families a $1,000 college tuition tax credit for freshmen and sophomores who earn good grades. He also wants to offer universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.

Jones would not say what other major items needed to be resolved.

In short, details are slim, the budget isn't done, and the House calendar has officially added session days from now until Wednesday, April 12.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Budget blues

Like children stuck in a classroom on a sunny day, politicians tried to speed through business Tuesday so they could get out to play their annual softball game between the Representatives and the Senators. Their master plan hit a snag when House GOP members started standing to speak their minds about the lack of a budget to vote on. Despite Democrat Rep. Lou Lang’s criticism for composing political speeches when no bill was under discussion, a string of Republicans spoke with urgency and a chip on their shoulders for not being invited to the budget negotiations. They called for the governor to appear, as the April 7 adjourn date has slipped out of reach.

Rep. Jim Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, called the last-minute budget an abomination, an “insult to anyone with intelligence above plant life.”

Soon after, Danville Republican Rep. Bill Black stood up and said: “It didn't used to work this way. We used to have budget meetings. We used to have budget briefings. We used to have caucus after caucus after caucus to discuss the budget, and here we are what should be four days from adjournment. And as I raised the question last week: When are we going to talk about the budget? When are we going to see budget figures?”

He referred to the message House Republicans issued in a press conference Monday. They talked about the long-term problems caused by the $1.1 billion in deferred payments to the state’s five pension systems and the sale of assets as a way to keep the budget and the teachers’ retirement system afloat. “Do any of you want to get to a future General Assembly when you have to appropriate current tax dollars to pay current pension benefits? Have you read what’s going on? [Illinois Teachers Retirement System] is selling hard assets to pay current claims? There is a negative cash flow this year estimated at more than $800 million.”