By Mary Massingale Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget speech on Wednesday offered an austerity of details unmatched by even the spartan spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Quinn spent more than a third of his 27-minute speech to the House and Senate recounting past state efforts to revitalize the Illinois economy.
He briefly mentioned his proposal to reduce by $552 million Medicaid reimbursements to nursing homes and hospitals for the care of the poor and disabled. He called for the elimination of regional offices of education to save $14 million, the eventual goal of consolidating the various 868 school districts to save $100 million, and a $25 million increase in financial aid to need-based college students.
That was it in terms of details — unless you count the $8.75 billion borrowing measure he is counting on lawmakers passing in order to pay off a backlog of $10 billion in unpaid bills and other obligations for the current fiscal year.
“He just doesn’t paint a strong narrative to bring people along,” said Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
Quinn most likely won’t bring Republicans along to vote to borrow the $8.75 billion, which he claims “is not, not new borrowing.” Any borrowing proposal needs a three-fifths majority vote to pass in both chambers, thereby requiring the support of some Republicans.
“Now if you don’t agree with our debt restructuring plan, tell us which payments you would eliminate to pay $8.7 billion in overdue bills today — which programs? Put it out there for all of us to see,” Quinn said. “Saying ‘no’ is not enough unless you are willing to offer real alternatives.”
Budget director David Vaught underscored the need to pay off the bills at a budget briefing for the media on Tuesday evening.
“If you don’t pay $10 (billion) or $11 billion in debt, it’s still there — that’s the problem. We can’t just let that sit there forever,” Vaught said. “It’s been incurred,. It was based on contractual obligations the state entered into, and we have to pay it. The idea that you just carry that over, and carry that over outside a normal payment cycle, is not acceptable. That’s why the governor proposed the debt restructuring plan. Let’s restructure it and pay it off.”
Just how much to borrow is likely to be a bone of contention throughout the legislative session, since Republicans are still smarting from a 67-percent personal income tax increase passed by Democratic lawmakers during the lame-duck session last month.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, acknowledged that the idea of borrowing will have to be “explored,” but wondered if Democrats may also balk at the $8.75 billion figure.
“I would suggest it’s not being embraced by those on the other side as well, because they know it’s a huge number,” Cross said.
However, it was one of the few numbers mentioned in Quinn’s speech. Most of the details of the $35.4 billion spending plan were skipped over, leaving the average resident to depend on information the media culled from Tuesday’s budget briefing or peruse the 472-page budget book posted online.
Education funding for transportation is slated for a $95 million cut, a move that local districts can handle, according to Quinn’s chief of staff Jack Lavin.
“When you see layers of layers of administration — you see 240 superintendents making more than the governor of the state of Illinois makes — I think that they can afford to tighten their belts and be able to pay for transportation,” Lavin said.
The budget also cuts $107 million by eliminating the Illinois Cares Rx prescription drug program that helps senior citizens supplement the Medicare program. Seniors are again targeted with the elimination of the Circuit Breaker program that offers grants to help pay property taxes and license plate fees in an effort to cut $24 million.
Public safety also is targeted by cutting $10 million from a training program for new state troopers.
The top three governmental priorities of health, education and public safety did not escape the budget knife, but Quinn also took on another sacred cow — legislative scholarships handed out each year by every member of the General Assembly. Past selection of recipients has shown the financial aid often goes to family or friends of the politically connected.
"College scholarships that are paid for by the taxpayers of Illinois should only go to those who have true financial need for them,” Quinn said.
However, the budget proposal also calls for hiring more than 550 new state workers at an as yet undetermined cost, while still calling for an apparent $53 million cut for new social services field workers to handle a growing caseload.
“There will be some slow growth and already has been in some areas,” said Vaught. “When we’re running a capital program, for instance to give you two or three examples, you need more engineers at IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation). When you’re adding nursing home inspectors under the nursing home reform law, you need more nursing home nurses that you’re going to add. When you have a larger prison population and you have overtime problems at Corrections, you’ve got to stem the attrition there. So, there’s going to be hiring in all those areas.”
The plan also adheres to the 2-percent spending cap implemented with the passage of the state income tax hike, coming up with about $1.4 billion to spare, according to the governor’s budget documents.
However, Republicans claim the proposal spends $1.7 billion more than the current budget.
“Right there, it says we need to focus on controlling spending,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
Although the income tax increase is expected to garner close to $7 billion annually, the fiscal landscape still appears bleak, as the state grapples with a current unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.
Add in a public employee pension system that’s underfunded by at least $80 billion, and the picture doesn’t get much brighter, according to Redfield.
“We’re still not going to be able to get out of this without a train wreck,” Redfield said.
ISN reporters Benjamin Yount and Andrew Thomason contributed to this report.