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Illinois lawmakers pass budget, help horse tracks, honor Simon, go home

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By Sean Crawford, Illinois Public Radio / AP

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kwmu/local-kwmu-510540.mp3

Springfield, Ill. – Illinois lawmakers have finished their spring session a month later than it was first scheduled to end. On thursday night, they sent the governor a $55 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Democrats put that budget together and used their majority in both the state House and Senate to pass it, shutting out Republicans in the process.

The plan spends more money on schools, universities, and health care. But what closed the deal is less conspicuous.

Illinois Public Radio's Sean Crawford prepared this report.

BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

The budget includes money to move toward universal preschool, provide more college aid, hire additional prison guards and increase education spending.

But paying for it depends on cutting payments to underfunded government pension systems and on slow reimbursements to the doctors, nursing homes and pharmacies that care for the poor.

It also includes hundreds of millions of dollars to be divvied up for the pet projects of lawmakers who backed the budget. "I don't want my kids to have to pay for all of this," said Sen. Carole Pankau(R-Itasca).

Senate action was delayed until Thursday night by last-minute objections from a variety of lawmakers, particularly the chamber's four Hispanic members. They sought money for school construction and security, along with pledges of better communication from the governor.

Eventually, their concerns were addressed and they helped pass the budget 31-27, ending the spring legislative session.

Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) praised the new spending plan for helping schools and veterans. He blasted Republicans for blocking borrowing for school construction and said the last-minute demands ultimately helped. "It created a lot of problems for the governor, but those issues got resolved and the lines of communication opened up," Jones said. "In the future, things will be much better."

The budget's approval capped an unpredictable legislative session. Democrats excluded Republicans from budget talks and planned to adjourn unusually early April 7 only to have their negotiations stall for nearly a month.

Blagojevich rejected Republican claims that the budget weakens the state by delaying payment of medical bills and reducing support for pensions. He said he has been able to add money to pension systems in previous years. "We've actually made that situation better," he said.

Blagojevich also defended putting money into the budget for special projects that lawmakers demanded before supporting the spending plan. He didn't know how many projects were added or what they cost but said they reflect lawmakers representing their districts, he said.

"Every lawmaker comes to Springfield with an agenda that they're interested in pursuing," Blagojevich said. "It's part of the legislative process, part of our democratic system."

Blagojevich's Republican opponent, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, said in a statement that the governor would have to answer for "demanding a record-high" budget.

Writing this year's budget was made much simpler by Democrats' decision last year to drastically reduce the amount of money the state is required to pay into ailing government pensions. That reduced state expenses by about $1.1 billion. The state's operating budget basically, everything except long-term construction costs would increase about $1.4 billion, or 4.6%, according to the governor's budget office.

The budget includes $45 million to launch "Preschool for All," a program to make preschool available to every 3- and 4-year old. Education spending would increase by about $430 million, with more than $100 million going to Chicago's financially struggling schools.

Much of the money would come from growth in income taxes and sales taxes, which are climbing after several stagnant years. The state also would close some tax "loopholes," take about $160 million out of special-purpose funds and sell part of the state's student loan portfolio.

Lawmakers also passed legislation requiring Topinka to release $250 million in disputed funds. The money comes from special funds, and Topinka has questioned the Blagojevich administration's authority to use that money for general purposes.

The Democratic budget plan does not include the governor's proposal to borrow $3 billion to build schools and roads. That needed a three-fifths majority to pass, which would have required Republican support. Hoping to spotlight Republican opposition, Democrats proposed a stand-alone $500 million school construction plan Thursday, which GOP lawmakers said lacked a source of revenue to repay the debt. The vote was 62-43, and it needed 71 votes to pass.

PAY RAISE

The Senate also adjourned Thursday night without taking action to block a scheduled pay raise for state officials. Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, maintained lawmakers could still block the raises when they return to work in November.

HORSE RACING

Lawmakers also passed legislation that would require lucrative Illinois riverboat casinos in the Chicago area to share their profits with the state's horse-racing industry.

A Blagojevich spokeswoman says the governor will sign the bill into law.

Casinos clearing $200 million a year would have to pay 3% of their profits to a fund that would subsidize horse racing tracks, breeders and owners.

Officials estimate $36 million would go to racing, 60% of that would go to boost purses for race winners. Racing advocates say winnings not high enough to lure quality trainers to improve race horses.

The law would expire in two years. Officials say they hope to have a comprehensive answer to the future of gambling by then.

PAUL SIMON PARKWAY & FREEWAY

Another piece of legislation now on Gov. Blagojevich's desk would name two stretches of road in the Metro-East after the late Sen. Paul Simon.

If signed, the measure would rename part of Illinois 162 in Troy as the "Paul Simon Parkway." At the age of 19, Simon became the youngest editor-publisher in the country when he took over the Troy Tribune newspaper.

A two-mile stretch of Interstate 270 in Troy will also be dubbed the "Paul Simon Freeway." Simon died in 2003 at the age of 75.

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