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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 07:30 am

All is well at the General Assembly, except for the $12 billion deficit

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Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago).
PHOTO BY MICHAEL TERCHA/MCT

It’s been clear from the beginning that Gov. Pat Quinn muffed his budget rollout.

Instead of stressing the billion dollars or so in cuts he made and the additional cuts he might be open to, Quinn has repeatedly stressed the need for a 50 percent increase in the income tax rate and has flatly rejected additional budget reductions.

Polling conducted for the Senate Democrats reportedly shows voters want the exact opposite approach. First, make the cuts, then increase taxes if and only if they are absolutely necessary.

So, Quinn hasn’t made it any easier to wrap up the General Assembly’s business by May 31 and balance a budget that has a hole somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 billion.

Senate President John Cullerton said last week he believed two of the three major issues facing the General Assembly were going quite well. You’d never know it by hanging out at the Statehouse, but he was more upbeat than I’ve seen him in weeks.

An ethics reform bill is beginning to take shape as Cullerton negotiates with the governor and the governor’s reform commission.

The public works “capital” bill is also moving forward, Cullerton said. The leaders have agreed to a basic outline of revenue sources, including increasing the sales tax on most alcohol; a sales tax expansion to include candy, iced tea and beauty products; privatizing Lottery management and allowing Internet Lottery ticket sales; raising various vehicle registration and licensing fees; legalizing video poker and using Road Fund money that is currently spent elsewhere.

The big problem, Cullerton said, is the budget. And he’s certainly right about that. I could tell you lots of stories, but I’ll just pass along one.

I spent some time last week with a liberal African-American state senator from Chicago who has historically fought attempts to cut the budget, but has never been directly involved with the budget-making process. The legislator, who is virtually assured of reelection, stunned everyone in the room by announcing that the General Assembly ought to just pass a budget and go home without a tax increase, no matter what the deficit or damage might be. The legislator couldn’t be convinced otherwise, even by a highly respected Democratic budget expert who was also in the room.

When a liberal who represents a district chock full of people who depend on state government services starts talking like that, you wonder how they’ll solve this budget crisis.

The mushrooms, as rank and file legislators are often called, aren’t restless. They’re an apoplectic mess.

Legislators elect their leaders to protect them from the harsh realities of political life. Leaders raise most of the money, they run the campaigns, they help members write legislation to benefit their districts or make them more popular with the folks back home. And they protect members from tough votes.

Nobody has taken a truly tough vote in the General Assembly since maybe 1983, when taxes were raised during a terrible recession. They’ve been spoiled rotten, coddled and shielded at every turn by leaders who have ignored the state’s problems until everything finally exploded at once with a fury unmatched since the state government went bankrupt in the 19th century. Nothing has prepared legislators as a group for the horrific votes they face this month.

Cullerton says he sees the way forward. He believes he can cut a deal with the reform commission that will keep the good government types and the editorial boards off his members’ backs through the 2010 election, and iron out the details of a massive public works program to create jobs and mollify the unions. Easier said than done, I know, yet he thinks that’s all within reach right now.

But then, as Cullerton says, there’s that budget problem.

Quinn has made things even more difficult by caving in too quickly to unions representing teachers and state employees. He had demanded that the workers pay an extra two percent of their salary into their pension funds. The unions pushed back hard, so Quinn announced he was dropping the idea after being roundly booed and heckled during a raucous teachers union rally.

An experienced negotiator would’ve made the teachers and state workers sweat it out until the end of the legislative session, and then handed them the concession. Now, they want more out of Quinn and he has little to give.

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