Thursday, June 16, 2011

Budget deal reached to keep construction going

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers have reached a deal in an impasse over spending that threatened to stall construction projects throughout Illinois.

Last month, in the closing days of the legislative session, the Senate approved the House’s budget proposal, which was based on a revenue estimate for Fiscal Year 2012 that was about $1 billion less than the Senate’s projection. However, Senate Democrats tacked on additional spending, primarily for human services and education, to the FY 2012 spending bill for the capital plan. The House did not vote on the bill, and Gov. Pat Quinn warned that lawmakers must approve the construction spending or projects could begin to shut down as early as tomorrow. Lawmakers are scheduled to hold legislative session to take up the issue next Wednesday. FY 2012 begins July 1.

Senate Democrats have backed off the extra funding for now. "The state's construction program should continue uninterrupted. The Senate intends to return to the Capitol on Wednesday to fully fund the construction program for the full 12-month period,” Senate President John Cullerton said in a prepared statement. 

However, they maintain that the budget is incomplete and say something will have to be done down the road, presumable during the fall veto session. “There are still major structural deficiencies in the House budget that will become clear in the months ahead. I look forward to having the opportunity to address issues such as the underfunding of education and social service commitments,” Cullerton said.

While the $430 million in spending that some Senate Democrats want is not much when put up against the House’s overall $33.2 billion plan, those in human services and education say it would have gone a long way. Meanwhile, Republicans say no amount of money is worth tying up job-creating construction projects in a political battle and any more spending is irresponsible. “It’s unconscionable to put thousands of jobs and projects in jeopardy over a political issue,” said Patty Schuh, spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. Quinn also called for lawmakers to approve a “clean” capital spending bill with no additional appropriations.

“It’s a very delicate balance I think that we have to achieve. Just like people do at home and at work, when you make a decision about what are the most priority items to fund when you are looking at difficult times,” said Park Ridge Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, who sponsored the additional spending. Kotowski said the spending would have restored aid to some of the most vulnerable residents of the state. He said that some of the cuts in the House budget could open the state up for legal challenges because it is required by law to fund certain programs. Adding that some of the House cuts “not only present us with legal problems federally, [they’re] also morally unconscionable.”

Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition, broke down what was at stake for human services:
  • $1.2 million for epilepsy programs.
  • $19.9 for state operated mental health facilities.
  • $2.9 in grants for community care for mental health patients.
  • $4.2 million for children’s mental health in-home care.
  • $1.5 for addiction treatment.
Additional funding would have gone to Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grants for college students, home-delivered meals for the elderly and programs for children in foster care. “This isn’t an example of waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement. This is an example of basic needs,” Kotowski said of the spending. He added that letters have already gone out to college students promising their MAP grant funding.

The bulk of the restoration, $212 million, would have gone to fully fund general state aid to K-12 schools, which is paid on a per pupil basis. “[The cut in the House budget] will have the greatest impact on the least wealthy districts as far as property tax base and districts that have the highest concentration on low-income students,” Larry Joseph, director of budget and tax policy initiative for Voices for Illinois Children, said of the potential cut. “It won’t be an impact that is spread evenly across school districts and among students.” He said if the House's cut is approved by Quinn as is, general state aid would be the lowest it has been since 2007. Joseph said the general state aid reduction has gotten the most attention. “But it’s not the only thing, and it’s important to understand that.”

He said if Quinn signs the approved budget, grants for early childhood education will be slashed by $17 million, leaving 4,000 children without preschool. He added that the grants have been cut in recent years, leaving an estimated 8,000 children without preschool. He cited a recent study commissioned by child advocacy groups Voices for Illinois Children and The Ounce of Prevention Fund, from the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit health and human services organization. The report concluded that investments in early childhood education are cost-effective and save the state spending in other areas, such as corrections and social services. “At the very time that this comes out that the investment is well worth it … we’re making these cuts in preschool. It doesn’t make sense," he said. The day after regular session adjourned, Quinn chastised lawmakers for cutting early childhood programs as well as MAP grants.

Joseph said some smaller programs, such as a new teacher mentoring program that would be eliminated, will join other less costly programs, such as summer offerings for struggling students, that have been eliminated in recent years. “These are relative small programs, but obviously, it has a big impact if you eliminate it because whatever it is it was doing it is not doing at all anymore.”

Joseph said while the additional spending may not seem like much compared with the entire budget, “for education and human services both, there’s a lot at stake.”

Schuh said when it comes to the budget, Republicans are willing to negotiate, but the capital bill should not come into play. Republicans backed a $5 billion to $6 billion spending cut from Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget plan to ensure that the recent income tax increase remains temporary, as it is written. The House budget represents a less than $3 billion reduction from the governor’s proposal. Senate Democrats have argued that shifts could be made to accommodate their requests without increasing the total spending for FY 2012.

However, Schuh called such plans “smokescreen” and said any additional funds that are found should go to pay down the state’s billions of dollars in late bills. Republican votes will be needed to approve any new legislation for the rest of this calendar year. It appears that on this issue, Republicans used their newfound leverage to get what they wanted. Before the Senate Democrats conceded today, Schuh said: “It’s simply not in the cards. It’s irresponsible. … We are absolutely dug in. It’s not going to happen.”

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