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Thursday, July 30, 2009 07:36 pm

Drowning in red ink

Erasing five years of preschool progress, and other travesties

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Moments after members of the Illinois State Board of Education voted to cut the board’s budget by a net $180 million last week, an activist group called Voices for Illinois Children sent out an urgent e-mail to supporters.

The group sketched out the pain the cuts would cause (the net cut actually disguises a $389 million reduction to individual program lines). A one-third cut to early childhood programs, for example, could mean the loss of preschool for 30,000 children.

“This budget immediately erases five years of progress in early learning,” the group’s interim president was quoted as saying in the e-mail. Voices has an interim president because its founding president is now Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief of staff. The group was ecstatic when Jerry Stermer took Quinn’s top job, but the champagne bottles are long empty.

The Voices e-mail also pointed out that Gov. Quinn was given $1.2 billion in discretionary spending authority by the General Assembly, which, the group noted, Quinn could use to close that education funding gap.

A different organization, Illinois Action for Children, sent out a blast e-mail shortly after Voices did.

“Governor Quinn has the power and the moral authority to reinstate this funding, and we are calling on him to do that before it is too late for children and families in Illinois,” the group’s president demanded.

They’ll all have to get in line. Social service providers have already been eyeing Quinn’s $1.2 billion cash stash to patch their own budget holes created by the legislature.

And they’re not alone, either. The General Assembly allowed Quinn to use the money for pretty much anything, including operations, so the employee unions may demand a piece of that $1.2 billion to reduce the number of threatened layoffs.

Actually, once word gets around about this discretionary authority, Quinn might wake up one morning very soon and wish he didn’t have it. That line of demanders will be long, angry and probably not very sympathetic about the governor’s Solomonic dilemma.

But that little pot of gold pales in comparison to the cuts which still have to be made.

Gov. Quinn was also given the authority (which he’ll need) to set aside up to $1.1 billion in state spending to fund a “contingency reserve.” Almost every aspect of state spending was included in the provision — except for the General Assembly and every constitutional officer besides the governor, of course. That means cuts.

The new budget law also requires the governor to make at least another $1 billion in unspecified cuts. More pain. The actual deficit is somewhere around $5 billion, so those two reduction items will only make up one part of the governor’s budget management headache.

And then there’s the alarming problem of a rapidly emptied state unemployment insurance trust fund that nobody has really dealt with as of yet. Right now, the state is borrowing from the federal government to replenish the fund — and piling up more crushing debt in the process. That’s not gonna look good to the credit rating agencies, which are fixing to whack Illinois with yet another downgrade.

And then there’s next year’s budget deficit that the governor has to take into consideration when spending money this year.

A couple of days after it demanded Quinn spend part of that $1.2 billion stash on education, Voices for Illinois Children released a report showing next year’s budget deficit will be at least $10.3 billion. That’s about what I’ve been saying for weeks.

One-time revenue gimmicks and the federal stimulus package this year added up to over $5 billion. And new spending next year — pensions and debt payments on the borrowing this year — adds almost $2 billion more. Plus, the state is carrying over a deficit from last year which won’t be paid this year, so that $3.2 billion gets added to the total.

Is your head spinning yet from all this red ink? Mine certainly is.

Maybe Quinn ought to just take that $1.2 billion and put it in the bank and save it for next year.

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