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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 12:30 pm

Budget politics: What was Quinn thinking?

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PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Child care advocates thought they had avoided $400 million in threatened cuts to the state’s child care services budget after speaking with top officials in Gov. Pat Quinn’s office earlier this month. And the governor’s budget office then told a Senate appropriations committee that no such cuts were being planned. 

But when the governor unveiled his proposed budget for next fiscal year last week, he included a $350 million net cut in child care spending, according to the House Democrats’ analysis of the proposal.

The child care folks aren’t the only ones who may be feeling double-crossed by Gov. Pat Quinn’s new budget plan.  Aid to the aged, blind and disabled is decreased by $15 million, mental health centers will see a $33 million reduction. The auditor general will take a $471,000 hit by reducing headcount and by cutting back the number of audits his office will perform. 

State legislators are also not happy for many reasons, not the least being that Gov. Quinn waited until after his speech to sign legislation into law which would have made his spending plan illegal had he signed it before his budget address.

The bipartisan legislation requires the governor to only use revenues that are legally available to him at the time he introduces his budget. Since he didn’t sign it, he wasn’t bound by it.

However, the House Democrats say they expected Quinn to abide by it anyway, whether he signed the bill or not.

And according to the House Democrats, Quinn’s budget proposal uses about $730 million in revenues that would have been prohibited by their bill. Quinn unilaterally lowered the percentage of tax dollars earmarked for the corporate tax refund fund and decoupled the state from a federal tax depreciation law. Neither of those things have been approved by the legislature.

There appears to be another $700 million or so in unapproved revenues in the budget, according to Senate President John Cullerton and the Senate Republicans. That cash appears to be coming from the governor’s proposed $8.9 billion borrowing plan, which has also not yet been approved by the General Assembly.

So, while Gov. Quinn says he made cuts of $1 billion and his total spending is $1.4 billion beneath the new annual spending caps which were put into the tax hike bill, his budget is still around $1.45 billion out of whack unless and until the General Assembly approves those new revenue streams.

Senate President Cullerton canceled his traditional, post-budget address media availability last week, claiming he had too many unanswered questions about the governor’s proposal to talk to reporters.  Cullerton then urged the governor to provide more details. 

And House Speaker Michael Madigan seemed determined last week to force the governor to abide by the new fiscal responsibility agenda that Madigan has been touting. Madigan said that any new revenues ought to be used to pay down old bills, rather than fund new initiatives. 

In other words, we can probably expect more cuts. 

Budget addresses are the starting point in the never-ending game of “Statehouse Give and Take.” 

But here’s the problem: What the heck do many of his allies have to gain from working to pass this thing? If Quinn had introduced a more honest budget which didn’t include the borrowing plan and the other phantom revenues, he could have gone to all the unhappy groups and said, “You need to help me pass those new revenue streams and then I can try to restore your budgets.” 

Instead, human service groups and their legislative allies are furious at the outsized cuts aimed at them.  Hospitals and nursing homes are up in arms over Quinn’s Medicaid reimbursement rate slashes. School districts are freaking out about a huge cut to their transportation budgets. So, why would they help convince the General Assembly to approve all that new money if they already knew the governor wants to cut them no matter what? 

You’d think that would be an odd way of doing business.

Then again, public employee unions weren’t touched. Money for the state’s school fund will actually increase, even though transportation and other items were cut. Quinn also wants to add 950 new state employees. The unions representing those workers have been under fire in Springfield, even by Democrats, but they backed Quinn to the hilt last year and he’s now protecting them.

And that appears to be the bottom line here.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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