As Illinois Budget Votes Loom in State Senate, GOP, Dem Lawmakers Spar

(Springfield, IL) – May 2, 2011. As Illinois’ budget deadline approaches, the Illinois Senate could be the next fiscal battleground.

Fresh off of a two-week break, Illinois state senators on Monday returned to the Capitol to iron out the final details of a $30-billion-plus state spending plan.

“We’re going to pass a budget, and it will be a balanced budget,” said state Sen. William Haine, D-Alton, who added that he is confident the Senate would be done by the end of next week.

Exactly how to divide the state’s dollars, however, is in dispute.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, wants to see an agreement between the House and Senate that sets a price tag before lawmakers start spending.

“It is unfair to human service providers, state employees, universities to have both chambers pass a budget that is totally different and have each of them thinking that one or the other is going to be the realistic number,” Syverson said.

The House is working with a $33.2 billion budget, while the Senate is working with a $34.3 billion plan. Both estimates are less than the $35.4 billion figure that Gov. Pat Quinn said he wants to spend next year.

“The minute we suggest making cuts to one of those programs, if we’re specific in that, what you’ll find is that the opposition will quickly run to the press and talk about how we’re trying to take food away from babies, or we’re trying to take health care away from seniors,” Syverson said.

Before leaving for break, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, called on Republicans to officially file their own measures on the budget. Republicans in March released an overall plan to cut between $4 billion and $6 billion, but no firm budget measures have yet to be filed.

Haine echoed Cullerton’s request.

“It’s somewhat unfair to say we’re going to put the shoe on their foot, when they have intimated that they could make greater cuts in a press conference, but have yet to come up with the mechanism to do it,” Haine said.

Republicans say they will have a plan ready next week, said state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Highland.

“The majority party — the ones in complete charge — are telling us that they want us to take the lead, and if that’s what it takes, we might just have to take the lead,” McCarter said.

Democrats control both the governor’s office and the Legislature, and can pass a budget with only Democratic votes before midnight on May 31. After that, a three-fifths majority vote in each chamber is needed, requiring Republican votes.

Republican state Sen. Pamela Althoff of Crystal Lake, who is the minority spokeswoman for one of the two Senate appropriations committees, said she has been working with both Democrats and Republicans during the break.

“My understanding is that (the Democrats) will take that information back to their caucus, meet and (try) to determine where we can make significant reductions, (and) give that proposal,” Althoff said.

Although Althoff said she has seen bipartisan efforts in crafting next year’s budget, she is unsure how much Republican input will come through in the final product.

“If we follow President Cullerton’s proposal and have individual agency bills — which is something the House is also talking about doing — I think that’ll be a problem for many members within my caucus, as I believe most of those agency budget proposals will increase spending overall,” Althoff said. “(It) obviously will be very difficult for Senate Republicans to vote for.”

State Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, wants to see less talk and more action.

“We’ve been very engaged with the (state) agencies identifying those cuts, trying to identify where those cuts are going to come from, which line items, and next week we’re going to have the bills to put forward that the votes can be taken on,” Sullivan said. “The Senate Republicans have not done that.”

The political posturing from both sides has a lot to do with how parties want to be seen in the next election, said Michael G. Miller, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Miller said most politicians don’t want to have something they’ve said during budget debates haunt them on the campaign trail.

“The closer the partisan division in an assembly, the longer the budgeting process takes. Because first there’s the compromises that one has to make, and crafting these funding bills take time,” Miller said. “At the same time, when you’re in an economic environment or budgeting situation like this assembly finds itself in … it seems like it’s human nature to want to put those off for as long as possible.”

Melissa Leu and Mary J. Cristobal, Illinois Statehouse News

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