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New fiscal year starts; Illinois only has a temporary budget

By AP/KWMU

Springfield, Ill. – The state of Illinois entered a new budget year Sunday, but officials failed to pass a new budget to go along with it. Instead, government will limp along with a one-month spending plan that does little more than keep the doors open.

The lack of a real budget means schools don't know how much money they'll have in the coming year. Prison wardens don't know how many guards will be available. Hospitals and nursing homes don't know when they'll be paid for treating the poor.

A long list of problems caused the budget impasse and are keeping it alive.

WORLDS APART

Budget negotiations among the governor and legislative leaders boil down to stark differences over whether state government should expand dramatically.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones, both Chicago Democrats, want a $5 billion spending increase to give schools more money and guarantee health insurance for everyone in the state. They'd come up with the money by creating new business taxes and legalizing more casinos.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, also a Chicago Democrat, would limit any spending increase to whatever money comes from natural growth in state revenues and by ending a few business tax breaks. That would produce about $1 billion, with most of the money going to schools. Republican legislative leaders support a similar, but even smaller, budget.

Neither side has shown any inclination to bend. Blagojevich hasn't talked about scaling back his sweeping health care proposal. Whenever Madigan is asked about compromise, he simply repeats that the House has approved a version of the budget and that no larger version will pass.

HARD FEELINGS

Egos and resentment complicate the budget talks.

Blagojevich has never gotten along well with legislators, and he didn't improve that relationship by portraying his health plan as a moral crusade and placing restrictions on how to come up with the money. Basically, he put an "immoral" label on anyone who disagreed with him.

Madigan refused for weeks to meet with the governor and start talking about the budget. Blagojevich has needled Madigan at every opportunity by questioning the House's work ethic, refusing to meet with one of Madigan's top lieutenants and challenging Madigan to come up with a budget plan of his own.

Jones, who has long worked in Madigan's shadow, has accused the speaker of shortchanging schoolchildren and the poor.

NEW FACES

Republicans were shut out of the process entirely at first. Blagojevich even talked about the importance of Democrats unifying to pass a budget by May 31 so that the GOP would not have any input.

Well, Democrats blew that deadline and new legislative rules kicked in that require Republican votes. So the GOP is at the bargaining table now and not inclined to be helpful to the Democratic majority.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, has outlined a budget that would use natural revenue growth to make the state's required pension contribution and give schools a little new money. It would also allow existing casinos to expand, providing money for new state construction.

He and his Senate counterpart, Frank Watson of Greenville, have little incentive to support the major government expansion that Blagojevich wants.

FLAWED BUDGETS

Critics have plenty of gripes about the Blagojevich/Jones budget plan: its taxes might hurt the economy, the big health care expansion could turn into a nightmare of red tape and it wouldn't fix the state's long-term debt problems.

But they can't claim the massive spending plan lacks money to pay the state's bills for the coming year.

On the other hand, the budgets proposed by Madigan and Cross clearly are not big enough to cover a full year's expenses, which include $125 million in mandated raises for union employees, a $550 million increase in pension costs, $570 million in higher Medicaid costs and more.

Adopting some version of that budget probably would require cutting state jobs, delaying health care payments or chopping other programs.

MYSTERIOUS GOVERNOR

Blagojevich's behavior has confounded many lawmakers and eroded support for his proposals.

For instance, when the House voted 107-0 to reject his proposal for a $7.6 billion business tax, Blagojevich didn't acknowledge a setback or discuss changes to his plan. Instead, he described the day as "basically an up ... I feel good about it."

He met with Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, to lobby for his health care plan. The meeting turned so ugly that Jacobs ended up telling reporters that the governor was mismanaging the state, was a bully and that he would run against Blagojevich in 2010.

Blagojevich also was absent from the Statehouse most of the session, usually showing up just once a week. That didn't stop him from scolding lawmakers for their work habits and challenging them to meet five days a week. When Blagojevich did decide to visit Springfield more frequently, he chose to fly to the capital city in the morning and home to Chicago in the evening, at a cost of thousands of dollars per flight.

NO PRESSURE

Lawmakers have approved a temporary budget to keep state government operating through July. Without the threat of a government shutdown hanging over their heads, Blagojevich and the legislative leaders face even less pressure to compromise.

While some lawmakers vow not to support any further temporary budgets, in theory the extensions could be used to keep government going for months without a real budget.

Blagojevich is trying to create some pressure by calling lawmakers into special session, hoping that they press Madigan to agree to a larger budget. One risk, though, is that they'll blame Blagojevich for forcing them to stay at the Capitol even though there's little they can do.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, no one expects it to be quick.

"It looks like we'll be here for a while," Jones said Friday.

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