The Southtown Star

'For our final act, a budget of pixie dust'

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gov. Pat Quinn and his entourage wore dark suits and grim expressions last week as they opened the vault on the state's serious budget problems.

They should have worn tie-dyed T-shirts and dreadlocks. Quinn in particular attempted an upbeat forecast as he stood before several dozen stern, exasperated journalists.
"What if you don't get a tax increase passed?"

"Is this budget predicated on $4 billion in borrowing for pensions?"

"What do you tell service providers who haven't been paid in six months?"

"I don't think negatively. I think positively," Quinn said more than once.

I immediately envisioned him in a Bob Marley wig rolling a homemade "cigarette."

Don't worry. Be happy.

Meanwhile, journalists with considerable experience covering the state budget hunched over their notepads, internalizing the collective high blood pressure Quinn's staff should have manifested.

I'll be frank: There is nothing -absolutely nothing - that justifies a positive attitude about this budget. In fact, it isn't really a budget at all. A budget assumes income. That fact is the state is broke. There is no money with which to "budget."

Quinn's "budget" is a continuation of the miserable status quo. It's a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth exercise. Schools, social service centers and vendors will get paid when and if money becomes available. That's pretty much the bottom line.

Reporters repeatedly pulled Quinn and his budget director, David Vaught, into a numbers-crunching exercise, determined to ascertain the facts. We wanted to know exactly how big the budget hole was - at one point Quinn said there was no hole - and how Vaught arrived at his figures.

Did the budget presume a $700 million increase in federal Medicaid funding?

Did the budget presume passage of a $4 billion bond sale to fund pensions?

Did the budget presume lawmakers would eventually increase the income tax from 3 percent to 4 percent?

And what about the $6 billion in unpaid bills carried over from Fiscal Year 2010, which ended Thursday?

So you can see how numbers become squishy. When a budget is predicated on shaky-at-best revenue sources, it's really just a mountain of dust. A pile of "maybes." A wish and a star.

Invariably, Vaught and Quinn grew irritated with the assault of reporters' questions. That's to be expected. The media tries to filter the political speak; to boil down gobbledygook into meaningful information.

I went to the news conference Thursday hoping to provide Southland state workers, teachers, school officials and vendors with specific information about their futures. Will they have a job this fall? Will they get paid?

But that wasn't possible. Quinn's blueprint was as fuzzy as Fozzy Bear. Instead of offering a specific plan of cuts, he gave us his own lump sums. For example, he'll cut higher education by $100 million and human services by about $35 million, but we have no idea where those cuts will land.
In some cases, state agency heads will decide where to trim. Michelle Saddler, secretary of the Department of Human Services, said she will review contracts on a case-by-case basis during the next few weeks.

Vaught said certain programs throughout state government would be cut by the end of the month. Those will be specified through filings in the state comptroller's office-the office that pays the bills. Vaught and Quinn offered no specifics Thursday.

They are not issuing pink slips to state workers.

School districts are promised the same level of funding as last year, but they still haven't been paid by the state for last year's expenses. So a promise of level state funding is an empty one.

The news conference ended in a Thompson Center hallway with state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) offering the Republican response, and predictably criticizing Quinn's budget as "smoke and mirrors."

But Murphy and the rest of the Legislature are just as guilty. They abdicated their budget responsibilities by leaving town.

Basically, they handed Quinn a pile of doo-doo.
And now they're complaining about the stench.