Deadline fuels ideas on budget

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

SPRINGFIELD — As lawmakers try to cobble together a budget before their Memorial Day deadline, House Democrats on Monday started exploring two backup options on the major obstacle of how to make a $3.7 billion state worker pension payment.

A House committee approved a measure that would allow Gov. Pat Quinn to skip the payment next year. That has emerged as an option after Republicans balked at borrowing to cover the pension costs for the second year in a row.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said lawmakers will attempt once more this week to win support for borrowing the money, but Democrats advanced the payment-skipping measure just in case.

“It’s important for us to have on the back burner something that will get us out of this bind,” Currie said.

Skipping the payment would result in billions of dollars in lost investment earnings over time, Currie said. Illinois has the most chronically underfunded pension system in the nation.

Leading House Democrats said they are working on another backup plan. To entice Republican support to get the 71 votes needed for approval, they would tie pension borrowing to approving new bonds to pay for road and school construction.

Democrats still are not confident that Republicans would support the combined package, but noted that in the past, GOP members voted for additional highway bonding and school construction and might fear criticism for failing to bring jobs and pork projects back to their home districts.

One House Republican, Rep. Bill Black of Danville, said he’s willing to vote to borrow for pensions. “I don’t see how you can leave here and not borrow money,” said Black, a member of House GOP leadership who is not seeking re-election.

Speaking in Chicago, Quinn did not box himself in politically during what is supposed to be the legislature’s final week. He refused to say if he'll sign a spending plan that does not include pension borrowing.

“We want to do the right thing, so my focus is on that,” Quinn said. “I'm not going to anticipate anything other than that.”

Following a closed-door Democratic caucus tonight, Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, said the budget proposals to be considered on Tuesday will not have tax increases.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said a series of proposed cuts she put together with a coalition of rank-and-file Democrats would be heard in House committees Tuesday. But she wasn’t overly optimistic they would be approved. The proposed cuts include reducing vehicle mileage reimbursement rates for state workers, eliminating salaries for part-time board and commission members, trimming agency budgets and requiring state retirees to pay premiums for health care.
“Generally, when you’re talking about spending reductions and other things of that nature it runs into some challenges,” Nekritz said.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, declined to provide details on the budget plan.