Governor signs 'sweeps' bill but not spending measure

Doug Finke

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has quietly approved a bill diverting $221 million from restricted state funds that lawmakers want to use to avert more than 300 layoffs and the closure of two dozen parks and historic sites.

But whether those layoffs and closures are averted is far from certain.

The Blagojevich administration said Wednesday more than $50 million of the $221 million lawmakers want diverted may be off-limits, and that it is up to Comptroller Dan Hynes to decide how much money is available. Hynes’ office responded that the governor is wrong, and that Hynes is obligated by law to transfer the entire amount.

Further muddying the issue is that Blagojevich still hasn’t signed a companion bill that authorizes spending the money. Even if he does, the administration is not obligated to spend it.

“It isn’t a guarantee he won’t close parks and lay off these people,” said Rep. Gary Hannig of Litchfield, one of the Democrats’ top budget negotiators.

Blagojevich Tuesday signed Senate Bill 790, which authorizes taking $221 million from special state accounts, a process known as “fund sweeps.” The special funds usually get their money from permit and license fees and are set aside for specific programs. Lawmakers said many of those funds have surpluses, and that the money can be used to reverse some of the budget cuts announced by Blagojevich.

Shortly after the General Assembly approved the sweeps bill, though, the Blagojevich administration said more than $50 million of the money may not be available. It noted, for example, that $17 million is coming from funds that don’t have surpluses, and another $4 million isn’t available because of court orders. Nonetheless, Blagojevich signed the bill into law without making any changes.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said it is up to Hynes to decide just how much money is available to reverse the budget cuts.

“The comptroller can read the law and determine what’s appropriate,” Quinn said in an e-mail. “He has the responsibility of deciding what will be transferred.”

Hynes spokeswoman Carol Knowles said the office did read the bill and has determined it has no choice but to take the entire $221 million out of the special accounts.

“It is a constitutionally enacted law, and we are going to follow the law,” Knowles said, adding that the governor shouldn’t have signed the bill if he thought some of the funds were off-limits.

Hannig, who helped negotiate the sweeps bill, said Blagojevich’s office never raised concerns about the legislation while it was debated in the House.

“We had a public hearing. The governor’s people didn’t testify,” Hannig said. “Even when we had negotiations with the Senate Democrats, we never got any signals from the administration that there were problems with the bill.”

Quinn called Hannig’s statements “empty political rhetoric.”

Because there is a question about how much money might be available, Quinn said, the governor will not immediately act on the companion bill that authorizes where the swept money is to be spent. She said the administration is proceeding with preparations for the previously announced cuts that will result in the layoffs and site closings.

Hannig said it appears Blagojevich “has made up his mind he wants to close parks and lay off employees and cut human services.” If there are problems with the sweeps bill, they can be fixed before the cuts are implemented, he added.

Last spring, Blagojevich wanted lawmakers to give him permission to sweep more than $530 million out of special funds, although the administration never identified which ones. Hannig said that shows there is money available in other funds if the $50 million the administration says is off-limits truly isn’t available. He said a revised bill could be passed in November when lawmakers are scheduled to hold their veto session.

Some layoffs are scheduled for the end of this month. The rest and the site closures don’t take effect until the end of November.

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.