State budget process: Hard part still to come
Illinois lawmakers’ efforts to craft a new state budget had a fitful week last week, and the tough part is yet to come.
Both the House and Senate dribbled out some of the smaller pieces of a new state budget, but neither chamber has made public its plans for human services or elementary and secondary education. Those account for a huge part of the state budget -- 79 percent of spending out of the state’s basic checkbook account, based on how the House is allocating money this spring.
There is also the issue that the House and Senate are building their budgets around different revenue numbers. The House estimates revenue next year will amount to $33.1 billion, while the Senate is basing its budget on a projection of $34.2 billion in state revenue.
“The next step is going to be the critical part,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, a leading House budget expert, on reconciling the competing budget plans.
It could get worse, Mautino said. About $2.5 billion in outlays aren’t part of the budgets that are being considered by the various General Assembly appropriations committees. The biggest part of that is money the state sends to local governments to prop up their finances.
Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed suspending that revenue-sharing unless lawmakers approve a borrowing plan to pay off old bills. Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, a Senate budget expert, said the idea of cutting revenue-sharing will be on the negotiating table regardless of the borrowing plan.
“We could take it all, take a percentage, suspend it for a year,” Trotter said of the options open to lawmakers.
“That’s going to be a really hard $2.5 billion piece,” Mautino said.
Human service budgets, which provide assistance for the poor, disabled and ill, could prove particularly troublesome. A Senate appropriations committee held a hearing on a human services budget that called for cuts to programs, but some Democrats on the committee balked at the cuts. A day later, the human services budget was not among the ones approved by the Senate.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, chairs the House committee that deals with human services spending.
“The whole process has been daunting,” Feigenholtz said. “We had to cut 6 percent from what the governor introduced. We tried to do precision cutting, spend resources in a more accountable way.”
Feigenholtz declined to discuss specific parts of the budget until next week, when the committee is expected to adopt it.
Both the House and Senate this year have given much more authority to their appropriations committees to develop a budget, rather than relying on the handful of lawmakers who worked out the details in the past.
“This is what the rank and file asked for,” Trotter said of budgets being drafted by committees rather than a handful of lawmakers. “They asked to come into the kitchen. They’re finding out it’s hot in the kitchen.”
“I’ve had that comment from a lot of (representatives) who said, ‘This is tough,’” Mautino said.
Different bottom lines
It’s led to different approaches in deciding how to make the cuts that most lawmakers believe are necessary. Senate Democrats are using Quinn’s proposed budget plan as a starting point and making reductions to it. Republicans said that approach won’t result in deep enough cuts because Quinn’s plan increased spending.
By contrast, the House General Services committee mostly used the current state budget as a starting point and made cuts to it. Chairman Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, said that meant finding $88 million in cuts rather than $230 million had they started with Quinn’s plan.
The committee handles budgets for a number of state agencies, including Agriculture, Revenue, Central Management Services, Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Employment Security, Historic Preservation and others. Revenue, CMS and DCEO were singled out for 15 percent across-the-board cuts, deeper than others on the list.
Some cuts too deep
“It was based mostly on audit reports,” Crespo said. “You see a trend with some of these agencies with findings over and over and over again. We feel uncomfortable giving hard-earned tax dollars to agencies that aren’t doing a very good job using that money.”
The committee also cut 25 percent from every agency’s travel, equipment and contractual expenses.
“Some of the committees may have cut certain things too deep,” Mautino said. He cited Revenue, which needs to reimburse its auditors for their travel expenses.
“If you make it difficult for auditors to go out and audit, the state loses money in the long run,” Mautino said.
That small discrepancy underscores that there is still a lot of work to be done before a budget will be finished. But Trotter said it’s what the budget negotiators used to go through.
“I don’t think it’s any different than before, except the last time the windows weren’t open,” he said.
Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.