State seeks public input on budget amid deficit

By Paolo Cisneros

Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan, announced Monday that the House will hold a series of public hearings regarding the Illinois state budget.

The 19 hearings are designed to give private citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns regarding the $59 million budget. They will take place in various locations throughout the state and are scheduled to begin Monday, March 10.

“Our hope is that these forums will increase the transparency of the budget-making process, complement the works of standing House appropriations committees and perhaps provide a new model for us to follow in the future,” Madigan said in a press release.

The hearings come at a time when Illinois faces a $750 million deficit for the current fiscal year, and recent warnings by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke have some experts predicting a national recession.

“This money is coming out of the pockets of taxpayers,” said Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion. “We need to be accountable to them, and that’s one reason I think we need to hear from them.”

Flider said the hearings are necessary as a way of responding to the budget recently proposed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“The budget he proposed really doesn’t have a lot of detail to it,” Flider said. “It’s trying to be everything to everybody, but it doesn’t necessarily talk about how the puzzle pieces would fit together.”

This is not the first time Illinois lawmakers have held such hearings. Similar events took place in the weeks leading up to the passing of last year’s budget and ultimately helped officials draft the final product, said Steve Brown, press secretary for Speaker Madigan.

“We thought we’d repeat it this year because it’s forecasted to be a difficult financial year,” he said. “Hopefully, this will help us craft a budget that makes sense.”

The idea to hold the hearings originated as a way of allowing citizens to make their concerns known without having to travel to Springfield. Their locations were determined in an attempt to accurately represent citizens from all areas of the state, Brown added.

“I think we’ll have some valuable commentary from various citizens who are interested in how the state spends its money,” he said.

Flider and Brown emphasized the importance of college students attending the hearings because funding for higher education is an important and, what they said they believe to be, underfunded portion of the proposed budget.

“I think (higher education gets) the short end of the stick again,” Brown said.

Other issues, such as the repair of state infrastructure, mental health services, health care and funding for schools and state parks will be determined by the budget.