Illinois legislative bodies move forward with budget plans

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – House and Senate Democrats moved ahead with dueling state budget proposals Wednesday without an agreement but with hopes they could reach one within the next 10 days.

The House narrowly approved along mostly partisan lines more than 20 bills that would set out spending priorities for the next budget year along two tracks.

One would keep funding for most programs flat from the current year’s budget, while the other would pump millions of dollars more into needs such as education, health care and human services.

Meanwhile, the Senate moved ahead with several budget measures and planned votes for as early as Thursday on a proposal of mostly limited spending – pointing to a lack of money for an absence of new or expanded programs and projects.

“We’re looking at what we have in the bank and what we can spend,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago.

Whether the gap between the two chambers will close soon is unclear, and the clock is ticking down. Democrats hope to wrap up a budget by May 31 or they’ll go into overtime session, where Republicans have more say in the final product.

Democrats in both chambers say it can be done, but there is more work to do to get there.

House Democrats advanced the two sets of budget bills Wednesday to spur movement and tried to turn the budget process on its head to accomplish the goal.

Lawmakers usually don’t vote on budgets until their leaders and the governor agree, but fighting among those leaders caused a long overtime session last year that they want to avoid this time.

“We can do nothing, and then we can become part of the trainwreck that we went through last year,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield. “We don’t have to have the leaders come to us and say we’ve reached an agreement. We can do it ourselves.”

The catch at this point is whether both chambers can agree on the right mix of spending and money needed to pay for it, as the budget already has a big hole and new money coming in is scarce.

House Democrats said the expanded spending met overdue needs in important areas.

House Republicans said the ambitious Democrat spending bills would put the budget more than $3 billion out of whack. They argued passing any budget bills now was misguided absent an agreement with the Senate.

“I think this is the exact trainwreck that happened last year,” said Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth.

Trotter called the more lavish House bills “nothing less than pandering” that the Senate wouldn’t seriously consider.

But he predicted the two chambers could be 85 percent toward an agreement on a more modest spending plan, with payments for pensions and schools among issues still needing to be worked out.

Another factor is Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He could try to keep lawmakers in town if they don’t approve key items he wants, such as $16 billion in borrowing to pay down massive pension fund debt and a new statewide construction plan.

Trotter confirmed Senate Democrats are looking at pension borrowing to possibly free up cash for other expenses, but the new construction plan backed by Blagojevich’s office might be delayed in the rush to get a budget done.

“We don’t want to get caught up in all the things that can happen when you’re talking about a $31 billion bill,” Trotter said. “It sets a different mind-set.”