State house votes to reverse $480 million in cuts

By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois House voted Wednesday to reverse about $480 million in budget cuts imposed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, although there’s little chance the money will ever reach the hospitals, drug abuse programs and mental health services for which it’s earmarked.

That’s because the cuts will take effect unless the Senate concurs with the House action, and Senate President Emil Jones says the state can’t afford to put money back into the budget.

“Overriding the cuts is being totally irresponsible,” Jones, D-Chicago, said while in Chicago. “Without any money to spend, what are you going to do?”

But others said Blagojevich used the cuts to inflict political pain on his opponents. They said he should be forced to find other ways to balance the budget, such as across-the-board cuts.

“The governor simply went too far. The governor had other options available, but he simply decided to balance the budget … by taking it out on the workers of the state of Illinois,” said Rep. Gary Hannig of Litchfield, a key House Democrat budget negotiator.

Nearly $1 billion in other budget cuts are also on track to take effect, creating a major squeeze for state services from parks to prisons to colleges.

Blagojevich argues he had no choice but to cut the budget after lawmakers sent him a $59 billion budget without enough revenue to cover expenses. He said the deficit topped $2 billion.

Wednesday’s House action was the latest skirmish in a political war among top state officials.

It gave House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democratic caucus a chance to vote for popular programs. Even if the votes have no effect, the lawmakers can go back to constituents and say they tried.

It also forced House Republicans to make some politically painful choices: Opposing voter-friendly spending or supporting parts of a Democratic budget they’ve been happy to criticize.

Democrats control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, but Blagojevich, Madigan and Jones are bitterly divided.

Madigan and Jones passed a spending plan that largely ignored the governor’s proposals. Madigan rejected revenue measures backed by Jones and Blagojevich. The result was a budget that dug the state deeper into its financial hole.

“This is what you get when you put Democrats in charge of everything. There is no adult leadership in Illinois,” said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.

Blagojevich criticized House members who aren’t pressuring Madigan to compromise on the budget and a proposed statewide construction program.

“These state reps, they’ve got to start standing up for their community and not be fearful of one political leader who they’re afraid of,” Blagojevich said, adding that most Chicago Democrats are “patronage workers” who have city or county jobs in addition to their state positions.

The House considered 33 motions to restore money that Blagojevich trimmed from the budget with his veto powers. All but six of the votes failed.

The six cuts they want to reverse include $400 million to pay for medical care to the poor. Without the money, it will take days or even weeks longer for the money to reach hospitals and nursing homes, a process that already takes months.

Other reversals approved by the House would provide money to the secretary of state’s office and treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the added cost could be covered by dipping into money set aside for special-purpose funds – an idea Blagojevich had proposed but Madigan has rejected so far.