State budget still not foregone conclusion


The Illinois Senate will take its stab at wrapping up a new state budget today, but the results are anything but a foregone conclusion.

Although Democrats hold a super-majority in the chamber, there is dissent both on giving Gov. Pat Quinn extensive emergency budget powers and on borrowing up to $4 billion to make next year’s pension payments.

“There are members of the Senate Democratic caucus that don’t support borrowing for the pension, so we will definitely need Republican votes,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.

That could be a major problem.

“I have been told there are no votes in the Republican caucus for borrowing,” said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, one of the Democrats’ budget negotiators.

The Senate did not return to Springfield until late Wednesday afternoon and did not take up any budget issues. Both parties planned to hold private meetings with members Wednesday to talk over positions on the remaining budget issues.

Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said Republicans have not yet taken a position on the pension borrowing bill.

“The governor called me (Tuesday). I said I will consider it. Right now, I haven’t ruled it out or decided to support it,” Bomke said.

Borrowing for pensions is a major component of Quinn’s budget proposal. He even went to the House floor Tuesday while that chamber was debating the bill.

After initially failing, the pension borrowing bill got 71 votes on a second attempt, the minimum it needed to pass. Two Republicans, Bill Black of Danville and Robert Biggins of Elmhurst, broke party ranks and supported it. Both men said borrowing for pension payments is better than skipping them, which the pension systems said would cost them billions of dollars in lost investment income. Neither Biggins nor Black is running for re-election.

During a news conference Wednesday, Quinn denied offering Biggins a state job in return for his vote on the pension bill.

“No. Completely ridiculous,” Quinn said.

Asked if he promised to get Biggins a job in the future, Quinn sidestepped the question.

Sullivan said he hoped to swing reluctant Democrats to the borrowing bill.

“Whether we will be able to come up with enough votes, I don’t think we know at this time,” Sullivan said. “There are no good options. There are bad options and worse options.”

If the Senate doesn’t approve the borrowing plan, an alternative would be to give Quinn the authority to make pension payments only if he determines there is enough money available. Most lawmakers think that the money won’t be available, so the option is essentially a pension holiday.

“The only question (now) is do you put the money in or not,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley.

The fate of pension borrowing also may determine whether universities will be given authority to borrow money while waiting for delayed payments from the state. A bill giving them that power is awaiting Quinn’s signature, but he said Tuesday he would not sign it. He apparently is using the university borrowing plan as leverage to win support for pension borrowing.

“I hope to get (the Senate) to go along with the pension payment,” Quinn said Wednesday. “I’ll look at other borrowing after that.”

Another component of the budget package would give Quinn extensive authority to determine when money is spent and on what. The Senate passed a version of these emergency budget powers, but the House made changes that must be approved by the Senate.

“I think it will be difficult to come up with enough votes,” Sullivan said. “It’s giving the governor too much discretion over the budget for (state) agencies.”

Democrats still want to finish the legislature’s spring session by May 31. After that, all bills will require a super-majority to pass, giving House Republicans a voice in all budget matters, not just borrowing.