Illinois Legislature ends without passing a balanced budget | St. Louis Public Radio

Illinois Legislature ends without passing a balanced budget

Jun 2, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 2, 2008Although Illinois lawmakers passed a budget and skipped town Saturday night with only hours to spare before their deadline, that doesn't mean work is over for everyone.

Lawmakers have passed the red pen to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, saying it is his responsibility to bring the admittedly unbalanced $59.1 billion budget in line. On Monday, Blagojevich said he will meet with the four legislative leaders to negotiate the revenue-generating proposals that the House failed to pass.

Since the session deadline has passed, both chambers need a higher margin of votes, three-fifths, to pass these bills, thus making the outcome that much harder to achieve. It is unclear whether House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who does not return the governor's phone calls or attend his meetings, will participate in the negotiations.

The Legislature, however, failed to pass a capital construction plan. Lawmakers have not been able to agree on a new capital plan, which would build bridges, roads and schools across the state, since 1999.

Even though he was only in the second year of his second term, Blagojevich was barely relevant in Springfield. During his February budget address, his proposals and demeanor were equally subdued, compared to his brash style of years past. Soon after he presented his budget to lawmakers, he and his ideas vanished.

Growing distrust of Blagojevich among lawmakers was palpable as the session wore on and was one of the reasons for the downfall of the capital plan.

Despite the governor's victory lap across the state in May to announce the newly negotiated construction plan, the onus was on the House and Senate to make the $33 billion plan more than just a proposal.

Passing a capital plan became Blagojevich's chief priority of the session. He recruited former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard, a former U.S. representative, to lead the fight. For months, the two former politicians met with leaders from the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle and settled on a plan that would be funded by leasing the state's lottery to private interests and expanding gambling, including allowing slot machines at horse-racing venues.

On Saturday afternoon, the Senate amicably agreed to the spending and revenue sides of the massive proposal as Republicans and Democrats pointed out how the plan would not only improve the state's roads but also provide jobs and return more money to the state.

Yet in the day's waning hours, it became readily apparent that the House, led by Madigan, did not plan to follow suit.

After the plan to lease the lottery failed in committee, House Democrats came back to the chamber and used a parliamentary maneuver to kill the gambling proposal. By killing the two revenue proposals key to the capital plan's eventual success, it now sits in limbo.

Late Saturday night, Madigan told reporters he supports a capital plan, but said he did not approve of the current revenue proposals to fund it. He said the state cannot have such a massive plan without "some pain," such as tax or fee increases.

In the wake of lawmakers leaving town for the summer, it's also not clear what they truly accomplished during their spring session.

One clear victory for good government advocates was the ethics legislation that flew out of the House and Senate without a single opposing vote. The bill, which would bar state contractors from contributing to statewide officeholders and candidates for constitutional offices, is intended to end pay-to-play politics and was indiscreetly aimed at the governor. Blagojevich, however, has threatened to veto the bill, and in doing so would delay its effective date even if lawmakers override him.

Republicans and Democrats alike were adamant about avoiding another record-setting overtime session like last year, when political infighting among Democrats kept legislators in Springfield through the summer and fall and into the new year. So one also could hand a partial win to the Democrats for negotiating a new budget and leaving the capitol with hours to spare before Saturday's midnight deadline.

Outside of those triumphs, lawmakers were unable to achieve other important goals. They failed to backfill this year's $400 million budget gap. That money will roll over into the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. They also were unable to pass any revenue-generating measures to support the new $59.1 billion budget. That budget also does not include $500 million for the state's pensions system, but does have 12 percent pay raises for lawmakers and constitutional officers.

Since the budget is likely about $2.1 billion out of balance, Blagojevich will be forced to make cuts. Blagojevich does have the option to veto the entire budget and force lawmakers back to Springfield to pass the revenue generating proposals that they rejected.

If he chooses to use his amendatory veto and make the cuts himself, the slew of interest groups - from higher education to human services - that counted themselves happy to see much needed increases in state money likely will be disappointed when the governor picks up his veto pen.

Republicans had few wins this year. Being in the minority, they are rarely successful. But in Illinois, the simplest thing they could do was sit back and let the Democrats continue fighting. Republicans were also hurt this year by being unilaterally shut out of budget talks and forced to vote on the large spending packages nearly blind.

Still the capital plan may rank as the biggest failure of the session. For the second time in a year, the Senate passed a capital plan and approved its revenue proposals, but their congratulatory speeches to each other on the Senate floor were premature.

On the other hand, lawmakers didn't get the list of how the state intended to spend the $33 billion or the language for the revenue proposals until very late in the game. House Democrats called it irresponsible to vote on a massive gambling expansion so soon.

Even if lawmakers pass the capital plan when they return after the November elections, the federal matching dollars, key to the entire plan, may or may not be available.

With lawmakers wanting to sidestep tough choices and ongoing squabbles among the state's Democratic leaders, the real losers here may be the people.

Andrea Zimmermann covers the Illinois Legislature for the Rockford Register Star.