Illinois senate approves fund sweep
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Faced with potential voter backlash in November, Illinois senators on Tuesday approved bills to reverse budget cuts that threatened to close state parks and historic sites and cause hundreds of state workers to be laid off.
The House approved the legislation two weeks ago, so it now goes to Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his approval.
Almost immediately, though, the governor’s office signaled that the Senate action may not save all of the parks, sites and jobs. Blagojevich must act on the budget restorations for them to take effect.
“We still have to look at particulars of the bill and the language before deciding what to do,” said Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero in an e-mailed statement. “We will spend what we can afford to spend in the areas of the greatest need.”
Guerrero cited a report issued by the administration Tuesday that state revenues may fall $200 million short of projections by June 30, 2009, the end of the fiscal year. The budget bill approved by the Senate contained $220 million in spending.
Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, said the new shortfall should not be an issue. The package passed by the Senate also calls for taking money out of restricted state accounts to pay for the increased spending, so “it pays for itself,” Hannig said.
Blagojevich has said the budget lawmakers sent him at the end of May was at least $2 billion out of balance. He cut $1.4 billion, with tighter money management used to balance the rest.
Because of those cuts, state agencies announced plans to close two dozen state parks and historic sites and lay off about 325 workers, mostly at the departments of Human Services and Children and Family Services.
The Senate voted 55-0 on Senate Bill 1103 that restored the cut money for parks, historic sites and the jobs. It also reinstated funding slashed from substance abuse programs and money taken from statewide officials who have announced layoffs, unpaid days off and hiring freezes.
The Senate then voted 40-15 on Senate Bill 790, which takes money out of restricted state accounts to pay for the spending.
“All I can believe is, he is going to sign this bill,” Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said of the governor. “It got an overwhelming vote. This is what we believe is the will of the people.”
However, Rep. Mark Beaubien, R-Barrington Hills, said he doesn’t think Blagojevich will go along.
“He has the ability to take his veto pen and play games,” Beaubien said. “He can mess with it.”
If Blagojevich does make changes to the budget bill or vetoes it entirely, lawmakers can still try to override him before the cuts take effect. The administration has pushed back closing parks and historic sites until the end of November. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Springfield Nov. 12 for the start of the veto session.
Trotter noted that DCFS officials told him the agency had “no immediate plans for layoffs, and they were still looking at going through December” before making staff cuts.
“They have enough funding (now) to get them at least to January,” Trotter said.
Members of both the House and Senate said they got loud complaints from constituents upset that parks and historic sites were closing. They resorted to raiding restricted state funds so the facilities could reopen, although many criticized the practice.
Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said lawmakers shouldn’t take any pride in choosing between taking money out of, for instance, a fund helping unborn babies and preventing state parks from closing.
“This is truly, truly the lesser of two evils,” Righter said. “Let’s not take pride in what we’re doing here today.”
The list of budget restorations almost got bigger, with money added for cooperative extension programs, community colleges, mental health programs and grants to local health departments. Beaubien and Hannig, who were negotiating the budget bill, both said an agreement was tentatively reached for a more extensive restoration when Senate Democrats abruptly pulled the plug.
Trotter, representing Senate Democrats in negotiations, said the budget bill started ballooning.
“Once we opened up that (budget) bill, everybody wanted something,” he said, including Blagojevich, who sought an extra $45 million for health-care programs.
At that point, Trotter said, negotiators decided to stick with the smaller bill (including money for parks and historic sites) that already had passed the House.
The budget action came on the same day the Department of Revenue projected state revenues could fall $200 million short of initial forecasts, further aggravating the state’s financial woes.
That estimated shortfall is based on revenue from individual income taxes increasing just 1.2 percent in the first two months of the budget year, and sales tax revenue growing by just 0.5 percent so far.
The budget assumed individual income tax revenue would grow by 3.3 percent this year, and sales tax would be up a little more than 1 percent.
Senate approves fund sweep
SPRINGFIELD (AP)—Illinois lawmakers voted to restore hundreds of millions of dollars to the state budget Tuesday, aiming to save more than 300 state jobs and keep open state parks and historic sites.
Most of the $231 million the Senate approved would come from “surpluses” in special state funds. The money would prevent the layoffs of human services caseworkers and the closure of places associated with Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the 16th president’s 200th birthday.
“We need to step forward and draw on existing resources for those who are most vulnerable in our communities and to ensure that essential services the government provides can continue,” said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, the Evanston Democrat who sponsored the “fund sweeps.”
Funds sweeps would provide $221.5 million; the rest would come from regular revenue sources, such as sales taxes and taxes on riverboat gambling, that lawmakers did not previously know would be available, said Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and lead budget negotiator.
Spending the money also would make Illinois eligible for another $16 million in federal matching funds, Trotter said.
But the Senate vote, which sends the measure to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, came on the same day Blagojevich’s Revenue Department announced that the slowing national economy has crimped tax collections. Income, sales and other tax receipts are down $200 million from anticipated levels.
That shortfall exacerbates the budget problems, Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. But Guerrero said he knew nothing of Trotter’s claim that Blagojevich asked lawmakers Tuesday to add $45 million to the bill for expanded health care.
“We will spend what we can afford to spend in the areas of the greatest need,” Guerrero said.
While debating the restorations, some lawmakers criticized Blagojevich, but just months ago, legislators sent the Democratic governor a spending plan that was out of balance by as much as $2 billion, saying it was up to the executive to “manage” it.
Blagojevich cut $1.4 billion, and in August announced that translated into laying off 325 workers, including 252 at the Departments of Human Services and Children and Family Services, which help low-income families and tackle child abuse.
The rest would lose their jobs at the Department of Natural Resources, which would close 11 state parks, and the Historic Preservation Agency, which would shutter 13 landmarks, including the site near Charleston where Lincoln’s family lived. The state is gearing up for international attention from the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in February.
But the money comes from accounts set aside for special purposes, some of which critics said fund the very services the measure attempts to save, such as a local tourism fund, a trust fund for Medicaid health coverage, and a fish and wildlife endowment fund.
“No one walks out of this building proud of the way this is done,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “This is not a good solution.”
Such opposition was reflected in the 40-15 vote to sweep the special funds. But when it came time to appropriate the money, the vote was 55-0.