State Capitol Q&A: Gov. Quinn's first budget a bold proposal

Ryan Keith

This week's State Capitol Q&A takes a broader look at Gov. Pat Quinn's budget proposal for next year that he presented Wednesday to state lawmakers and the challenges it faces over the next few weeks.

Q: What's the overall picture on Quinn's budget plan?

A: It's an unusual solution for a historically unusual problem.

Never before has the state of Illinois had a budget deficit of $11.6 billion. In fact, this is more than double the size of previous holes. So with just a few weeks under his belt as governor, Quinn faced a daunting challenge.

His plan has enough to make just about everybody upset at the Capitol - which could mean it's the right mix to get legislative support at a time when no solutions are easy.

He wants an income tax increase, a real taboo among lawmakers. He's asking for higher driver's license and vehicle registration fees, another no-no for politicians. He wants to skip full pension payments and reduce benefits for new hires, making employee unions angry.

And on top of all of that, he's calling for more than $1 billion in spending cuts, including a painful request for state employees to take unpaid time off and pay more for health insurance and retirement.

Q: How does the governor justify this plan?

A: Quinn calls it the "least bad" solution at a time when nothing will be pain-free.

He's coupled the income tax increase with a large increase in the personal exemption, essentially canceling out the tax increase for families of four who make $60,000 or less a year. His driver fees increase will go to fund a $26 billion construction program, putting thousands of Illinoisans to work on road, school and other projects as a way to fight rising unemployment.

Quinn is also proposing spending cuts that could help dull criticism from Republicans that Democrats in charge of state government only want to take taxpayer money and spend it, without constraints.

Q: What kind of response is Quinn getting so far?

A: In a normal year, this would be the kind of budget plan that could be dead on arrival because it commits too many political wrongs with too little benefit.

But this is far from a normal year.

Republicans are criticizing the proposal as flawed all around. They say there are too many wrong moves in a bad economy, such as tax and fee increases, and not enough good ideas, such as gambling expansion and deeper state spending cuts.

"If we don't control our spending, with new revenues we'll just increase our spending," said Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg.

Democrats are more open to his ideas, knowing the reality is if they reject what he proposes they've got to come up with an alternative at a time when no one wants to shoulder the burden of solving an $11.6 billion budget hole.

"We don't like a lot of things that's happening here. But the reality is at some point we're going to have to make some harder choices," said Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville.

Q: What's next for Quinn's plan?

A: The budget process for next year is just starting. Lawmakers and Quinn have until July 1 to put together a spending plan, although their goal will be to have a deal by the end of May - the targeted end of the spring session.

Legislators will soon start dissecting Quinn's plans in committee hearings, talking with advocates, state agencies and others about his specific proposals on spending and revenue.

Quinn and legislative leaders likely will meet in the coming weeks to negotiate over his ideas and their alternatives and pick a mix that can get enough votes to clear the legislature and the governor's desk.

But expect much hand wringing and lobbying as advocates for unions, business and taxpayer groups and other constituencies plead their case to be spared, either from cuts or from paying more in taxes and fees.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 orryan.keith@sj-r.com.