Budget ping-pong over ... for now

Ryan Keith

Budget ping-pong at the Capitol is finished for now. Lawmakers have gone home likely until the fall without restoring Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s deep spending cuts.

The mess left behind causes great uncertainty for state employees, service providers and taxpayers. Answers are fleeting now and could be for weeks or months.

Here is an analysis of those budget pieces and the role they’re playing in this budget mess.


Democratic lawmakers sent the governor a budget in May they acknowledged had more spending than money to pay for it. Blagojevich said it was $2 billion out of whack and made $1.4 billion in cuts last week.

He called lawmakers back to town last week to pass more money to stave off the cuts, but they refused. The House then voted this week to restore about $480 million in cuts, sending those to the Senate for consideration.

Now neither chamber plans to come back until November, leaving the fate of the cuts in limbo.


The House didn’t go along with the Senate-approved ideas for money-raising ideas to pay for extra spending: borrowing to pay down pension debt, sweeping money out of special state funds, authorizing a $34 billion capital construction program.

House leaders say there’s simply not enough support in that chamber for those proposals in their current form, although they’re willing to talk about alternatives.

The House voted to restore millions of dollars for Secretary of State Jesse White’s office, hospitals, nursing homes and substance abuse treatment centers. Many more cuts were upheld, with Republican leaders saying they couldn’t support putting more money back into a bloated budget.

House Democrats said Blagojevich could have asked agencies to reserve money or hold back bills instead of slashing right away.

“He made some choices that some of us would say simply went too far and went too deep,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield.


The Senate now has about two weeks to take up the veto overrides approved by the House.

Senate Democrats insist there’s no need to come back right away. They argue the cuts are still the House’s problem because the House didn’t pass the revenue to cover them.

Senators sympathize with callers who complain about the damage caused by the cuts but make clear they’re not to blame.

“We have to pay for this,” said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria. “It’s not just a matter of saying we oppose the budget cuts, because everybody does.”


Blagojevich blames the House for forcing the cuts.

The governor’s office says nearly 80 percent of the cuts come from increased spending above last year’s levels But there’s still hundreds of millions of dollars in more painful spending reductions.

Blagojevich tried to pressure the House to approve more money, especially the capital construction program, by sending them the cuts while they were in a special session he called.

The House says the onus should now be on the governor for making the cuts and the Senate to restore them.

“I suspect that their members are going to feel the same kind of pressures that ours felt,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

Blagojevich says he shouldn’t be blamed for what comes next.

“It’s their budget, they created this,” Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen said of House lawmakers after Wednesday’s votes.


Advocates for all kinds of affected services and programs are pleading for help.

Substance abuse treatment providers warn they could see major layoffs, scaled-back programs and long wait lists if lawmakers don’t restore $55 million the governor cut. The House backed reversing $43 million of that Wednesday.

“By no means does anybody think we’re through this and in the clear,” Keith Kuhn, community director for Gateway Foundation in Springfield, said Thursday.

The House also supported restoring $350 million for hospitals, who fear a waiting time of six months or longer to get paid for treating Medicaid patients if that money is gone.

“The consequences are very real, some hospitals will be at real risk,” said Howard Peters of the Illinois Hospital Association.

In Springfield, St. John’s Hospital will have less money to put into other services and will face other financial challenges if its 90-day payment cycle gets delayed, spokesman Brian Reardon said.

Rochester is among two-dozen school systems promised construction money in 2002. The junior high improvements are done, yet Rochester will wait longer after Blagojevich took out $148 million budgeted for the projects.

“We intend to be just like a pitbull on this issue,” Rochester schools Superintendent Tom Bertrand said. “We have a promise from the state and we expect it to be fulfilled.”

White is looking at closing driver’s service facilities, laying off employees or requiring employee furloughs if more than $22 million in cuts aren’t restored.

“At this point, everything is on the table,” White spokesman Henry Haupt said. “These cuts are a burden on the office, but we are doing everything we can to minimize any impact on the public.”


Lawmakers could try to work out an agreement on money-raising ideas and come back later this summer to stave off cuts. It’s more likely they’ll wait until after the November election to pursue options that could be tough to vote on during re-election campaigns, such as gambling expansion or even a tax increase.

Of course, waiting that long could put hospitals, substance abuse centers and others in financial peril.

In the meantime, Blagojevich’s administration could rachet up pressure on lawmakers by implementing doomsday scenarios – payment delays, historic site closings, employee layoffs.

Expect more maneuvering and fingerpointing between now and whenever the budget picture is cleared up.

“It's just all part of all the craziness that's been the hallmark of the last several years,” said Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria.