Lawmakers aim for budget deal in May, but hurdles remain

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Democratic lawmakers hoping to avoid another long, hot summer at the Capitol say they’re trying to put aside their differences and pass next year’s budget by the end of May.

But with less than two weeks to go, many hurdles remain.

“Can we reconcile those differences in the next two weeks? That’s the big challenge that lies ahead of us, and I’m hopeful that we can,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has been tussling with Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones since this time a year ago, when their feud devolved into a record-breaking overtime session that ended only when Madigan and Jones came to a budget agreement in mid-August.

And now, as the House and Senate prepare to move dozens of budget measures ahead this week, they’re not on the same page.

The House is considering a variety of budget options, from a mostly “bare bones” version that would keep new spending at a minimum to a more expansive plan that includes more money for education, health care and other needs.

The Senate, meanwhile, is looking at a limited-spending version that relies on minimal growth in existing tax revenues.

The differences between the plans is important because state government faces a major cash crunch. The current year’s state budget is $400 million to $750 million in the hole. That deficit will roll over into the next budget, making it more difficult to find new dollars.

Hannig hints the House could pass a budget with spending that exceeds revenues, and let the governor cut it down to the right size.

Blagojevich last year cut more than $450 million from the budget legislators passed – including money for House Democrats’ pork projects. Trust by all involved in the budget process will be key to getting an agreement, in May or beyond.

Senate Democrats promise any budget that isn’t streamlined won’t survive and criticize the House’s discussion of more spending.

“That’s ridiculous. There’s no money,” said Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete. “We have to be responsible, and that’s what we plan on doing.”

Blagojevich has proposed a tax rebate for families and expanding health care insurance coverage – but so far legislators have shown little interest in those ideas. He could try to keep lawmakers in town in special session to consider his key agenda items, as he did last year.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said the governor is more focused on seeing a good budget that meets the right priorities than having something done by a specific date.

But lawmakers also have a list of unfinished items that could complicate adjournment plans.

The biggest is a new statewide construction program worth more than $10 billion – something that’s been discussed and delayed for several years.

Rausch said a capital construction plan is critical because it would take some spending pressure off of the regular state budget.

But legislators in both chambers say an agreement might not be reached until after the fall elections. That’s when lawmakers could vote for the gambling expansion or even a tax increase to fund a construction program without imminent voter backlash.

“All these things are important to do, but as the clock ticks down the only thing that we must do is an operating budget,” Hannig said.

Despite the disagreements, Democrats – who control the House and Senate – say there’s a strong motivation to finish this month and see no point in fighting all summer for an unsatisfying result.

The new budget doesn’t kick in until July 1, so lawmakers actually don’t need an agreement until then. But any votes taken after May 31 require some Republican support to pass, so Democrats would like to finish it all themselves if possible.

“I think we need to stop the finger-pointing and let’s get that done,” said Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Collinsville Democrat and key Blagojevich ally.

But some aren’t convinced that will happen.

“I just don’t think we’re going to get out of here on May 31st,” said Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago. “I love Springfield, fortunately for me.”