Time runs out on state budget as deadlock drags on

 

 

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois officials failed to come up with a new budget Tuesday, thrusting state government into uncertain territory by allowing the old budget to expire.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and other state leaders assured the public that state services will continue unchanged for now. But if a budget is not in place by Aug. 8, the state will miss dates for paying employees and sending aid to schools.

Blagojevich sent a letter to state employees Tuesday urging them to report to work as usual Wednesday and promising they eventually would get paid for doing so.

“I hope you will continue to perform your duties until a full year’s budget is in place,” Blagojevich wrote. “With your cooperation, the people who count on state government will experience no inconveniences.”

Lawmakers and Blagojevich have been deadlocked for months over a new spending plan for the year that began July 1. They approved a one-month budget extension to keep government running, but that expired at midnight Tuesday.

The Democratic governor has been urging lawmakers to pass another budget extension. Instead, lawmakers are negotiating a full-year budget.

“I think we’re close,” House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said after meeting Tuesday evening with the governor and other legislative leaders. “As far as I’m concerned, I can see a budget that can be passed very quickly and be signed by the governor.”

Others were less optimistic.

Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix said Blagojevich continues to insist on a major new health insurance program, which has been a sticking point in negotiations. The legislative caucuses remain divided on how much to expand casino gambling and whether to use that money for schools or construction.

“I don’t want to mislead anybody. We’ve got a long ways to go,” said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville.

Blagojevich did not speak to reporters after the meeting.

The governor and others have for days stressed that expiration of the temporary budget should not cause an immediate crisis.

That’s because most vital expenses, such as employee paychecks and payments to schools, aren’t due until later in the month. The state should be able to keep running for at least a few days without major problems, leaders argue.

But for how long is a mystery.

Blagojevich said at a bill-signing Monday that his office has been making preparations for months. “We’re prepared to meet whatever contingency is necessary,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate on what those preparations are, and his staff could answer few questions about how the state will operate without a budget.

They also won’t discuss when services, such as state parks, police patrols and highway operations, might be affected by the budget impasse. They insist that’s not going to happen right away.

“There’s no clear answer to that,” Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said. “We hope it doesn’t continue long at all.”

Comptroller Dan Hynes warned Monday that severe financial consequences would hit by Aug. 8, when nearly 5,000 employees’ paychecks and $170 million in state aid payments to schools need to be processed and sent out.

“It will be a deadline that hurts people,” Hynes said. “Every day will be a potential crisis because no one will know what’s going to happen the next day.”

Secretary of State Jesse White last week committed to keeping driving facilities throughout the state open without a budget.

Workers are moving ahead as usual with preparations for the Illinois State Fair, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 10.

Schools and universities also are still planning to open classrooms later this month. Officials say they likely could run for a while using non-state funds, such as tuition income and local property tax proceeds, but getting a state budget in place is vital.