Lawmakers OK budget, but doubts remain

Doug Finke

Illinois lawmakers did their part to avoid another overtime session of the General Assembly this year, approving a new $59 billion state budget just hours before the midnight deadline.

How long the spending plan – which goes into effect July 1 – will hold together is anybody’s guess.

Republicans said the budget is at least $2 billion out of balance. It assumes state tax collections will increase by nearly $1 billion next year, something Republicans said won’t happen while the economy is slowing.

Two other key components in balancing the budget – spending $530 million from otherwise restricted state funds and issuing $16 billion in pension bonds – were approved by the Senate, but as of late Saturday had not been considered in the House.

There also is no money in the budget to cover pay raises that may be negotiated between the state and its largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“You are going to pass a budget that is $2.5 billion in the hole, out of whack,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. “Whatever you want to call it, it’s not balanced.”

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, who helped negotiate the budget, told Senate critics it will be up to Gov. Rod Blagojevich to see that spending doesn’t outstrip revenue.

“He can manage this,” Trotter said. “You say this is an irresponsible budget. I take exception to that. This is a reasonable budget, one that can be managed.”

Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said the House could decide later to approve the pension bonds or taking money from the restricted funds.

“We don’t need all of the revenue on July 1,” Sullivan said. “There will be opportunities to address it in the future.”

Some Republicans think that will happen after the November election, when lawmakers will be safe from voter backlash.

“This was a set-up for the November veto session for an income tax increase,” said Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth.

Blagojevich has several options available for dealing with the budget. He could veto the entire thing, forcing lawmakers to return and work on something more to his liking. He can make more selective cuts, eliminating or reducing spending for specific programs. Or, he could leave the budget alone and simply not spend money even though it is authorized in the budget. That’s what Blagojevich did this spring, when he withheld money for cooperative extension offices and soil and water conservation districts because the state was short of cash.

Blagojevich said he would have an open mind about the budget.

Budget at a glance

*Increases overall state spending by about $2.1 billion.

*Increases spending on public schools by $524 million. Benchmark per-pupil spending would increase $225 to $5,959 per student.

The education budget also includes $148 million for long-promised money to school districts for construction projects. That includes Rochester, which was promised $10 million in 2002, but never received it.

*Increases spending on higher education by 2.8 percent. However, there is no money in the budget for the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine to staff a cancer research center.

*Appropriates about $600 million to the state’s Medicaid program, but that will only keep pace with health care inflation. It will not reduce the state’s backlog of Medicaid bills.