State legislators leave Capitol at a standstill

Friday, May 7, 2010

SPRINGFIELD - State lawmakers left the Capitol late Friday without a state budget or solution to a $13 billion deficit, leaving behind growing fiscal uncertainties for suburban schools, social service agencies and anyone else who relies on or does business with Illinois.
Splintered House Democrats were unable to coalesce behind any of the myriad budget options and Republicans were unwilling to assist in bailing out what they say is a financial disaster made by the Democratic majorities.
A plan to borrow nearly $4 billion to make pension payments was rejected by House members as was a proposal to cut spending to cover the payment. Unable to cut spending and unwilling to borrow or raise taxes, lawmakers simply left hoping to piece together an agreement in the coming days and return for a vote.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said it would have been "premature" to rush a budget through this week when significantly more time remains for action.
"We can always develop a better budget if we work a little bit more and get a little more input," she said.
What the next step will be is unclear.
As of Friday night, it was unknown exactly when lawmakers would return to the Capitol. The Friday deadline was self-imposed and somewhat arbitrary. They have until the end of the month to enact a budget, otherwise approval would require support from 60 percent of the lawmakers and give Republicans a say in the Democrat-controlled chambers.
The next budget year begins July 1.
The fiscal focus for now is on the Illinois House. The state Senate, also controlled by Democrats, advanced several budget proposals only to watch the House reject them.
"We have done our job when it comes to the budget," Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said.
On Friday, the Senate advanced a plan that didn't outright skip the pension payment, but said the governor wouldn't have to make the payments until the state had the cash to do so. It's akin to your boss saying your pay isn't being cut, but the company doesn't have enough money to pay you for six months.
The teachers pension system estimated such a move would cost them tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in lost interest income, as it would have to sell off assets to meet its financial responsibilities.
But the House never considered that plan.
Members of each side accused the other of playing politics with the state budget as it was clear from the debate that the budget fight has taken on campaign overtones. Republicans are united in their opposition, saying years of irresponsible Democratic leadership of the state has created the problems and they aren't willing to stick their necks out to bail them out.
"We've been telling you since 2002 we don't have enough money," said Batavia Republican state Rep. Tim Schmitz. "Wake up."
In return, Collinsville Democratic state Rep. Jay Hoffman chided GOP members for voting for a similar pension borrowing plan last year and then rejecting it this year.
"What's the difference? It's an election year. Shocker," Hoffman said.
Several suburban lawmakers told the Daily Herald they were unhappy with how budget talks had been handled and saw no quick resolution to the state's financial woes.
"It could be a long month," said state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat.