Clock ticking for Springfield to resolve budget crises

By Harvard Zhang

Springfield, Ill. — Illinois lawmakers have until midnight Tuesday to push the brakes on the state’s entering a second budget-less year, which would continue to take a toll on a large swath of Illinoisans and dim the state’s future.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said Monday he had scheduled House special sessions for every Wednesday through June starting next week if there’s no agreement by the end of Tuesday, and called on the governor to keep the budget working groups of rank-and-file lawmakers functioning.

The 335-day budget deadlock has been perpetuated by election-year pressures and political discord between veteran Speaker Madigan and Bruce Rauner, the first Republican governor since 2003, afflicting the most vulnerable Illinoisans in public and private sectors as a result.

“Both the governor and the speaker should be blamed for the state budget impasse,” said James Nowlan, a Republican state representative from 1969 to 1972 and now president of Stark County Communications, who observed the Memorial Day House session in the gallery. ”The governor has more to lose because he’s the chief executive of the state by office and by perception. The speaker with his negative power is controlling every piece of legislation in both chambers.”

On another note, the House joined the Senate Monday to override the governor’s veto on a bill intended to give Chicago 15 more years to reach the stipulated 90 percent funded ratio of the city’s long-shortchanged police and firefighters’ pension plans.

Democrats’ budget

On the last spring session day Tuesday, the Senate is poised to vote on a 500-page budget that Madigan muscled through the House last week. Rauner derided the spending plan, saying it would put Illinois $7 billion deeper in the red, exceeding the estimated revenue of $32.8 billion in fiscal 2017 ending next June.

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger warned last week the passing of this bill would bloat unpaid bills to more than $15 billion with payment delayed more than eight months. The state currently has $7 billion of unpaid bills, and payments are delayed more than six weeks at best, according to the comptroller.

Unlike last year, the funding for K-12 education was enveloped in one budget House Democrats pushed through last week, which checkmated the governor, who has the authority conferred by the state Constitution to reduce or veto line items in any bill.

A real crisis, Nowlan said, such as public schools unable to open in the fall, might urge a super-majority of back-bench lawmakers from both parties facing re-election pressures to defy the speaker and pass a budget with reforms and tax increases to generate new revenues. After May 31, votes of three-fifths in both chambers are needed to pass a budget.

Rauner proposed two paths in February for the spending and revenue to balance out: either give the executive branch the authority to cut spending, or both parties negotiate on pro-business structural reforms.

Political battlefield

The budget crises have been complicated by politics and election-year pressures. The Republican governor, a former private-equity executive, wants to raise the workers’ compensation standard and weaken unions’ collective-bargaining power to attract businesses and boost economic growth. The speaker, a Democrat holding his position for all but two years in the past 33, accuses the governor of hurting middle-class families and wanting to tax the affluent to close the budget gap.

Lawmakers are swayed by re-election pressure. Democrats will most likely retain control in both chambers after the November 8 elections, according to Ballotpedia, an online non-partisan political almanac sponsored by the Middleton, Wis.-based nonprofit educational organization Lucy Burns Institute. All 118 state House seats and 40 out of 59 state Senate seats are before the voters.

Shock waves across the board

The most vulnerable Illinoisans and most state agencies are suffering from the budget crisis. Rape victims, the homeless, seniors and at-risk youth have seen their support delayed or canceled. Low- income college students have experienced state financial-aid postponement or denial. State universities have laid off staff and even faced closure. Health-care agencies have reduced services.

“The fact that we are not supporting institutions helping the most vulnerable citizens of the state looks counterintuitive to what our government should be doing.” said Melissa Heil, a geography graduate student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, creator of “Illinois Atlas of Austerity,” a visualization project mapping the consequences of the state budget crisis. “I’ve worked in the non-profit sector; I know the work social workers do matters for the ordinary, regular citizens.”

The state bonds’ credit ratings — already the lowest among all states — risks further downgrading as the government’s deficit continues to grow. Wary of Illinois’s finances, investors demand a yield of 3.5 percent on its 10-year general obligation bonds, about 1.8 percentage points higher than top-rated debt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Comptroller Munger said in February the state was poised to end this fiscal year with $6.2 billion more in debt. That money, according to Munger, could buy both teams in this year’s Super Bowl, Chicago’s Willis Tower and a round-trip to the moon all together.

Some stopgap fixes have cushioned the shocks. Lawmakers and the governor in April agreed to release $600 million to colleges and universities that had gone the entire school year without state money, 30 percent of last fiscal year’s state aid. The legislature also approved $700 million for social services agencies to help the poor, the elderly and the disabled, though Rauner has yet to sign the bill.

Deferring pension payments

Chicago received pension relief Monday after the state Senate joined the House overriding the governor’s veto (72-43-2), to postpone the deadline to 2055 from 2040 for the Windy City to fund its police and firefighters’ pension plans to 90 percent. The two pensions are now funded at a level of 23 percent and 26 percent, respectively, according to state House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

The bill “is about stabilizing the pensions to Chicago police and firefighters, and about avoiding an additional $300 million tax increase for the people in Chicago,” Currie said before the vote. “This requires nothing of the state of Illinois government, and not a penny from Illinois pension funds.”

The governor had warned that delaying pension funding by borrowing more would cost Chicago taxpayers $18.6 billion over the next 30 years.

“Those who supported this measure haven’t recognized what happens when governments fail to promptly fund pension obligations,” the governor’s spokesperson Catherine Kelly said in an e-mail statement. “Instead of kicking the can down the road, local and state governments should instead focus on reforms that will grow our economy, create jobs and enable us live up to the promises we’ve made to police and firefighters.”

Photo at top: Illinois state House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, and state Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, spoke to reporters after a leaders’ Monday meeting. (Harvard Zhang/MEDILL)