Illinois Budget Woes Dominate Lawmakers’ Agenda

(Springfield, IL) — As Illinois lawmakers come to the halfway point, many expect there to be plenty of work on the budget before the legislative year is up.

The 97th General Assembly has about two months before they depart for summer break, but any proposals that legislators want to take immediate effect must be passed before May 31 or else it will require a three-fifths vote from both houses.

At the top of everyone’s agenda is figuring out how to deal with the state’s fiscal situation.

“Everywhere I’ve traveled, people are coming up to me discussing, ‘What’s going on with the budget? Why can’t the state manage its budget, manage its finances? Why can’t they get their house into order?’” said Westmont Republican State Rep. Patricia Bellock.

Senate Republicans unveiled a plan last week to cut $6.7 billion from Gov. Pat Quinn’s original budget plan. The governor’s projected budget currently weighs in at $35.4 billion.

Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said he has seen a trend of people advocating for spending cuts by the end of the year, but noticed that it hasn’t been reflected in the actions of a few lawmakers.

“We have legislators introducing so many bills that are spending more money — starting new programs, expanding programs — knowing that there is no money in the budget to pay for them,” Syverson said.

But Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said spending is essential. He wants to avoid a “selfish attitude” that provides for spending on pet projects, but leaves the most vulnerable behind.

“You still have to move forward. Just because the economy is tight doesn’t mean that you can leave a child wandering in the streets,” Jacobs said.

So far, the General Assembly has only passed one measure, but most say that isn’t unusual for this time of year.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, said that it’s still too early to pass any judgment on the Legislature’s performance.

“Much of what’s gone on so far has been posturing, has been opening offers for later negotiations,” Yepsen said.

Last week was the deadline for lawmakers to get their initiatives passed out of committee for consideration. Every year, hundreds of pieces of proposed legislation never make it to debate, and this year isn’t expected to be any different.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said lawmakers are being encouraged to limit the number of bills they propose in hopes of prioritizing a lengthy list.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of bills happen coming up on the second half. Like I said, more than anything it’s going to be driven with the budget and budget hearings,” Phelps said.

Any real progress, especially in regards to the budget, must come from top leadership, said Syverson.

“Many of these resolutions do not have enough teeth to it to really become law,” Syverson said. “It’s really more important that we look at what are the key pieces of legislation that are able to pass, and which ones have the deepest affect on the most amount of people.”

Syverson said he anticipates more debate on legislation regarding gaming and the state’s capital plan.

Although the issue of closing the state’s budget gap remains unresolved, Bellock said she hopes to see more teamwork in the coming months.

“I think that we’re moving more in a bipartisan fashion, which I think is good because everybody realizes with all the deficits that we have — that we have to work together in order to bring the state out of the fiscal crisis that we’re in,” Bellock said.

Melissa Leu, Illinois Statehouse News

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