State lawmakers to push budget completion by weekend

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – State lawmakers started sending Gov. Rod Blagojevich pieces of the next state budget Thursday as they tried to hammer out sticking points on an overall agreement ahead of a weekend deadline.

House Democrats backed spending for small state agencies next year that the Senate approved last week. House and Senate negotiators continued work on the much larger and more hotly debated elements of the next budget.

Budget negotiators said passing the two measures should signal that lawmakers are on track to wrap up a budget and go home Saturday. After then, the session goes into overtime and Republicans have a greater say in the outcome.

“The real deal is coming sooner than later,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago.

Republicans who voted against the spending complained Democrats were shutting them out of the budget process to the detriment of taxpayers.

“What a dysfunctional way of governing the state of Illinois,” said Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, R-Des Plaines. “What a dysfunctional way of doing the budget.”

But Democrats still had work to do to hash out the right mix of spending on programs and projects, and how to pay for it.

Senate leaders lobbied to pass both borrowing to pay down pension debt and sweeping some special state funds. Combined, those ideas would raise more than $1 billion for needs such as education and health care – and there would be a big budget hole if either aren’t approved by both chambers.

The Senate voted 37-21 for both the pension bond and fund sweeps ideas Thursday afternoon, with only Democrats voting for it. That could spell doom for the pension bond measure as it heads to the House, where it would need a few Republican votes to reach Blagojevich’s desk. The fund sweeps could pass with only Democratic votes.

Trotter acknowledged that negotiators have discussed sending Blagojevich a spending plan they know is underfunded, then letting him use his veto pen to cut it down to size.

But for now, they’re considering other revenue sources, including a list of items that have been tried and rejected before: Selling or leasing the state Lottery, selling off a long-defunct 10th riverboat casino license and ending some business tax breaks.

“We are going to pass out what we can pay for, and we still have to work on where we’re going to get the revenues for the rest of the package,” Trotter said.

Trotter said the two sides are more than 90 percent in agreement on the spending side. They’re considering a nearly $500 million increase for schools and 2.8 percent funding increase for public colleges and universities.

Spending items still being worked on include how much to direct to human services programs for senior citizens and how much to set aside for salaries for unionized state employees who are in contract negotiations.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich continued meeting with lawmakers to urge them to approve a $31 billion capital construction program by the weekend. Advocates hoped to soon have a bill that lawmakers could consider and vote on.

Trotter and other legislators predict capital won’t be resolved that quickly, though.

“I don’t see it. I don’t see the votes,” Trotter said.