The truism around the Illinois General Assembly is that out of the thousands of issues lawmakers think they want to address in Springfield each year, the only thing they absolutely must do is pass a state budget. This week’s State Capitol Q&A looks at the issues involved in passing a budget this year.
The truism around the Illinois General Assembly is that out of the thousands of issues lawmakers think they want to address in Springfield each year, the only thing they absolutely must do is pass a state budget.
Never a simple task, passing this year’s budget could be as difficult as it’s ever been as lawmakers must try to close a record $11 billion shortfall without gutting popular spending programs or imposing such onerous tax and fee increases that voters rebel in next year’s elections.
This week’s State Capitol Q&A looks at the issues involved in passing a budget this year.
Q. What’s being discussed?
A. Pretty much what’s been there since Quinn delivered his budget speech in mid-March. Or as Quinn put things Tuesday, “I think our proposal is the only one in town.”
Basically, Quinn’s budget plan hinges on about $1.3 billion in budget cuts and other savings coupled with bringing in more money from an income tax hike, raising fees and hitting up state workers for more money for benefits.
Q. Are people coming around to Quinn’s plans for cutting costs?
A. Not that you would notice. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents state workers, is fighting Quinn’s proposals to demand that workers pay more for their pensions and health insurance. Anymore, just about every state lawmaker has public employees in his or her district that will be affected by those changes, and they will be pressuring lawmakers to reject the ideas.
Quinn’s cost-cutting plan also calls for creation of a separate pension system for newly hired workers, similar to a 401k program. No longer would the state guarantee those retirees a pension for life. Eventually the change will save the state significant money, although Quinn wants to use the savings as though they were occurring now.
Q. Is Quinn having better luck with revenue increases?
A. Only kind of. The Senate approved his idea for doubling the state’s cigarette tax over a couple of years, but the idea hasn’t yet passed the House.
Quinn’s major proposal to hike the state income tax by 50 percent (from a rate of 3 percent to 4.5 percent) is in limbo. Quinn continues to defend the proposal and thinks it will be approved. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said last week that there aren’t enough votes in the Senate now to pass Quinn’s income tax idea.
“It’s not that he’s the only game in town,” Cullerton said Tuesday. “We’re working on his blueprint and we’re going to undoubtedly make adjustments to get enough votes.”
“I’m open to changes others may suggest,” Quinn said.
Neither elaborated on what those may be.
Q. Are taxes the only option to bring in more money?
A. Quinn’s budget outline includes all sorts of fee increases that may or may not be accepted by lawmakers. Sullivan said there could be discussions about raising the state sales tax, although it could be targeted only to certain areas. Some lawmakers have suggested raising the gasoline tax, particularly as a way of paying for a capital program.
Despite all of the options that can be considered, there is little public debate about any of them right now. Behind the scenes discussions are taking place among budget experts and legislative leaders, but at this point not formal negotiating sessions involving face-to-face meetings.
Q. There’s some positive economic news out there. Any chance the state’s financial problems will get better on their own?
A. Not soon. As of Tuesday, the backlog of bills in Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office was $3.1 billion and it is taking 80 days to pay the bills once they arrive in the office. In January, the backlog was $1.8 billion and it took 48 days to pay the bills. A year ago, the delay was 13 days and $448 million was piled up waiting to be paid.
Q. Will budget cuts alone solve the problem?
A. Just about every lawmaker wants cuts/cost savings to be enacted before the state raises taxes. It’s viewed as a sort of pact with voters that state government can rein in spending rather than just ask for more money.
However, most of them also believe that the financial shortfall is so bad that some sort of revenue increase will also have to be part of the mix.
“If people think there is money to spend, they have another think coming,” said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. “If there is no new revenue source, we cannot fund state government in any responsible fashion.”
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or email@example.com.