House OKs possible Illinois budget despite governor’s concerns


Seth Perlman

By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Hoping to end weeks of gridlock, the Illinois House approved a possible state budget Thursday that offers a major spending increase for education but little new money for other programs.

The measure, which passed 99-9, came 70 days after the legislative session was supposed to end and nine days after the old state budget expired. The Senate was to consider the plan later in the day.

Even before the vote, Gov. Rod Blagojevich questioned whether the plan adds up to a balanced budget. He also criticized lawmakers for not including money to build new roads, bridges and schools.

The governor’s office stopped short of threatening a veto, but his chief House ally was clear.

“This budget will never be law. It will not be law,” said Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville. “It hurts too many people. It’s a phony budget put together on a shoestring.”

The budget is opposed by advocates for education, senior citizens and transportation, who say it doesn’t do enough to meet their needs. Even though schools would see nearly $600 million more, a 9 percent increase, advocates argue the budget offers no long-term solution to education funding problems.

But lawmakers from both parties defended the budget, saying it manages to help schools, put money into troubled pension systems and cover rising state expenses without a tax increase.

It’s also something most lawmakers can support, even reluctantly, after a budget dispute that has dragged on so long that it threatens to shut down state government.

“The best indication that it might be the right direction is that everybody’s unhappy,” said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.

Lawmakers pledged to continue working toward an agreement on new construction money and the gambling expansion that would supply it.

Blagojevich has been pushing hard for the construction money and his health insurance plan, so he might reject a budget that isn’t accompanied by both items.

Rep. Gary Hannig, a key budget negotiator for House Democrats, said most new money in the plan would come from increasing the estimates of how much natural revenue growth Illinois will see in the coming year. There would be no tax increases, although about $125 million in tax breaks for businesses would end.

He acknowledged the budget would include money set aside for “member initiatives” – projects that lawmakers can award to their districts without going through the normal appropriations process. Hannig would not provide a total amount.

Hannig rejected criticism that a state budget should not be passed on less than a day’s notice, with no copy of the legislation to study. He said this version is not much different from earlier proposals that have been discussed for months.

Illinois officials missed the latest in a string of deadlines Wednesday, threatening thousands of state employees and schools across Illinois.

Without a budget, the state comptroller won’t begin processing paychecks due to nearly 5,000 employees next week and $170 million in school aid payments scheduled to be mailed Friday.