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State Capitol Q&A: Dispute between Hynes, Quinn throws wrench in borrowing plan

Ryan Keith

“Just borrow it” could be the catchphrase of Illinois state government these last few years.

As budget deficits grow, politicians avoid major tax increases and deep spending cuts by putting state government's credit on the line and asking for cash advances to pay bills. Then they try to figure out later how to pay off the borrowing.

But a plan to do some more short-term borrowing has run into a major political snag that might take a while to resolve. This week's State Capitol Q&A looks at what's behind this dispute over borrowing.

Q. What’s the borrowing plan and the holdup?

A. State government routinely borrows money to deal with its most immediate money problems – to get through a slow time of tax collections, or pay down a growing backlog of bills owed to providers.

Usually, getting the borrowing done goes smoothly. The governor, comptroller and treasurer work out how much they want to borrow – sometimes $1 billion or more – and then figure out a way to pay it back before the end of the budget year.

But the political landscape is causing this latest plan great heartache.

Gov. Pat Quinn in October said he'd need to borrow as much as $1 billion during the winter to keep government going. He's running for governor against Comptroller Dan Hynes in the Democratic primary. Hynes has to approve the borrowing but won't for now.

Q. What's behind their dispute?

A. Both Hynes and Quinn insist their positions on borrowing are about policy over politics.

Quinn says state government simply needs the $500 million he's proposing to borrow right away to keep afloat providers who are owed long-overdue checks for services from the state. Without that aid, they'll soon lay off people, cut services and possibly shut down altogether, he warns.

He contends Hynes is dragging his feet on the borrowing and trying to score political points in the process.

"We've got to do this, do it together and do it for the benefit of the people of Illinois," Quinn said.

But Hynes says he hasn't seen a plan yet that he can endorse. He says Quinn's staff has sent him several plans of differing details and then asked for quick approval without much review time.

He also says he's hesitant to back more borrowing because the state already has borrowed more than $2 billion over the short-term for this year – and that doesn't count borrowed money used to pad pension and other budget holes.

"This is insanity, and somebody needs to stop the madness," Hynes said at a recent Statehouse news conference. "We need a real plan, not patched over, papered over ideas that are basically ill-conceived and not thought out."

Q. When might this get resolved?

A. Don't look for an immediate resolution.

Quinn and Hynes might say they're not playing politics, but they know the politics will play them if they make the wrong move. If one budges, the other will try to capitalize on it to show a weakness with voters.

The primary is Feb. 2. January should be loaded with plenty of back-and-forth between Hynes and Quinn, with few niceties to go around.

Another key factor is Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. His approval also is needed for any borrowing to move forward. So far, though, he's stayed mostly out of the fray.

Giannoulias, running for U.S. Senate, told The State Journal-Register's editorial board Monday that he's "tried to be the adult in the room" and mediate a resolution, but doesn't see that happening as long as Quinn and Hynes are at odds. He says talks are a moot point.

"If Hynes signed off, it would be tough for me to see a reason not to do it," Giannoulias added.

Quinn suggested last week that he might have to look at other ways to bring in money if Hynes won't budge. But don't expect him to give up right away either.

"If he doesn't want to do it, what can I do," Quinn told reporters in Chicago.

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