Illinois Senate approves state budget after bitter debate

Friday, May 7, 2010

SPRINGFIELD --- The Illinois Senate today approved a $26.1 billion operations budget after working into the early morning hours with Democrats and Republicans pointing fingers at each other in election-year gamesmanship.
Democrats who control the Senate voted 31-26 to send the spending plan to the House, which is set to consider it later today ahead of the General Assembly's scheduled spring adjournment. But first, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan has scheduled a morning closed-door meeting of his members with Gov. Pat Quinn. (You can see how lawmakers voted by clicking here.
The vote, which took place at 12:59 a.m., came after Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, criticized Sen. Bill Brady, the Bloomington Republican who is running for governor against Quinn this November.
Cullerton said Brady introduced a budget bill more than a year ago that could have been used to propose spending cuts, but contended the Republican backed away from it when it was set for a hearing.
“We no longer have an appropriation bill sponsored by Sen. Brady. So we don’t have an alternative budget," Cullerton said. "The only budget we have is this budget. Is it a nice budget? Of course not. It’s not nice because we don’t have enough money to pay for our basic services.”
Cullerton also lashed out at Republicans for refusing to vote for higher taxes a year ago, showing no interest in borrowing and failing to provide cuts to be considered. He decried the approach as a Republican “political strategy, ‘You guys are in the majority. You figure it out.’ And we’re doing the best we can.”
Senate Republicans questioned why Democrats were trying to advance a budget in the middle of the night that none of the lawmakers had read.
“Nobody knows what’s in it. Nobody knows what’s in it. We’re setting up ourselves to look ridiculous,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine.
As part of the political posturing, Senate Democrats pushed a plan that called for eliminating Senate GOP projects funded under last year’s massive public works bill. It was an attempt by Democrats, tired of Republican complaints of overspending, to make GOP senators vote to restore their pet projects.
"You like pork when you’re eating it,” Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, told Republicans.
Senate Republicans accused Democrats of violating a deal made to authorize the projects last year when some of them voted to legalize video poker in bars and restaurants as part of a public works program.
Republicans also were stung that the move came while Senate GOP leader Christine Radogno of Lemont was absent, attending her daughter's college graduation in Colorado. That set up an odd situation later when Cullerton asked his Democratic members to vote to restore the $100 million in GOP projects to the budget, while Republicans voted to eliminate them.
Overall, the mad scramble to keep schools and social services afloat relies on raising the cigarette tax by $1 a pack, allowing an amnesty for delinquent taxpayers, cashing in a portion of the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement windfall and punting a state worker pension payment to the end of January. Gov. Pat Quinn also stands to get sweeping emergency powers to cut the budget and direct money toward pressing needs.
In a nod to frustrated taxpayers who’ll be voting in the fall, the House on Thursday approved a partial sales tax holiday on August back-to-school purchases, and the General Assembly signed off on an extension of a popular property tax break for Cook County homeowners.
While the budget situation is still fluid in what’s supposed to be the waning hours of the spring session, Democrats moved to delay a $3.8 billion pension payment until after a new governor takes office early next year. It was a response to Republicans who balked at providing the votes needed for a second consecutive year of borrowing to cover public employee retirement costs.
“We thought we had met the depths of how low we can go last year, and it certainly has played out that we can get even lower as we go forward,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, of Chicago, a leading Democratic budget negotiator. “It’s just getting worse as we go forward.”
The pension delay plan stands as the biggest symbol of the polarizing effects of election-year politics. The delay would affect pension systems that cover state workers, public school teachers outside Chicago, university educators, correctional guards, judges, lawmakers and statewide elected officials. Illinois’ pension system already is the most underfunded in the nation and the delay would cost pensioners up to $37 billion in lost investment earnings over the next 35 years, according to some analysts.
The plan calls for the state to pour $4.1 billion into the retirement systems just two weeks after the next governor is inaugurated in January. But with the state expected to continue to carry a $5 billion backlog in overdue bills and continue operating under a deficit, the state would be hard-pressed to come up with the money without additional borrowing.
Quinn has been a proponent of taking out more loans to cover the pension payment, but his Republican governor challenger, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, has said that’s akin to “kicking the can down the road.”
Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the Hyde Park Democrat who is House Speaker Michael Madigan’s majority leader, implored Republicans to borrow money now to avoid investment losses, but GOP members of the House Executive Committee contended spending cuts needed to be made first.
“We’re not interested in raising taxes without doing spending reforms,” said Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake. But Currie countered, “We’ve been waiting since January for your list of $4 billion in cuts that every member of the Republican caucus would support.”
Acknowledging the gravity of the state’s deadbeat status, lawmakers also voted to send Quinn a measure to give the state’s public universities the authority to borrow money to cover more than $700 million in overdue reimbursements from the state treasury.
“We can see the price of gross incompetence,” Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said of the legislation. “Here we are with a ticking time bomb yet again and what’s the solution? Borrow more money.”
But Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, said that in a state still mired in recession “these are extraordinary times and this is an extraordinary remedy.”
The partisan battling continued late Thursday when Senate Democrats offered up budget plans aimed at forcing Republicans to vote directly on whether projects slated for GOP districts should be funded in the spending proposal for the budget year that begins July 1. The move was aimed at countering an expected election-year attack by Republicans on Democratic spending priorities.
As Democrats tried to cobble together ways to fund state services, a House committee advanced a tax amnesty proposal supporters said would generate at least $250 million by allowing those delinquent in paying their taxes or various state fees to pay up without penalty. It would allow state agencies to hire private debt collectors to go after unpaid fees, such as licensing charges, in the future.
The House sent to the Senate legislation that would eliminate the 5 percent state sales tax on items like clothing, shoes, sporting goods and computer accessories from Aug. 6 through Aug. 15. Taxpayers still would pay the local portion of the sales tax, however.
Meanwhile, a property tax break for Cook County homeowners would be extended by three years under legislation sent to Quinn, but the break would drop off each year. The maximum property tax exemption would continue to be $20,000 in the first year, then drop to $16,000 and to $12,000 in the final year.