Budget Showdown Highlights Legislature’s Last Day

It’s the final day of the Illinois legislature’s spring session, and a flurry of activity is certain under the Statehouse dome.

Following a surprise announcement from the House Speaker clearing the way for a pension overhaul, it could be labor unions’ last chance to preserve state employees’ and teachers’ retirement benefits.

The House approved a budget Wednesday, setting up the Senate to do the same, or forcing a showdown between the chambers.

As Amanda Vinicky reports, the latest spending proposal keeps alive the prospect that two state prisons and other state facilities will remain open.

There’s a certain feel in the Capitol at the end of a legislative session, unlike any other time of year.  It’s a frenzy. Leaders spend hours in closed-door meetings, making final deals.

Advocates rush around to make sure their programs are funded.  Lobbyists frantically attempt to fight off measures they’d thought dormant.

And then there’s the announcements, like the one House Speaker Mike Madigan made, just before the House was about to adjourn at 9:30 last night.

MADIGAN: “I’ve arranged with the clerk that the sponsorship of Senate Bill 1673 will be changed from me to Mr. Cross.”

This sounds procedural, but it’s game-changing.

With that announcement, the Democratic House Speaker was effectively washing his hands of his proposal to overhaul state pensions, and passing it off to House Republican Leader Tom Cross.

Much to unions’ chagrin, there appears to be a consensus that Illinois has to reign in its soaring pension costs by reducing benefits for state and university employees, state politicians, and public school teachers.

The sticking point has been over Madigan’s insistence that state government stop paying for professors’ and teachers’ pensions, and instead have the schools do it.

Republicans have been equally adamant those costs not get shifted, as it could lead to higher property taxes and more expensive tuition.

Madigan says he hasn’t changed his mind, but he was going to let Republicans have their way at Governor Pat Quinn’s request.  Here’s how he described it last night:

MADIGAN:  “I had an interesting meeting this morning with Gov. Quinn. I was surprised that the governor disagreed with me on the issue. He agreed with you; he agrees with the Republicans.  He thinks we should move the issue of normal cost out of the bill.  I disagree with the governor. But he is the governor. This is his request. “

Republicans were shocked; Cross’s spokeswoman says that was the first he’d heard of it.

Cross will get the chance this morning to try and push through his version of a pension overhaul; one that reduces workers’ benefits, but which contains no cost shift.

Madigan’s pension announcement came after the House Democrats spent hours passing their version of a new state spending plan that includes funding for all of the state facilities Governor Quinn wants to close.

There’s money to keep open the juvenile detention centers in Joliet and Murphysboro, centers for the developmentally disabled in Chester and Jacksonville, the prison in Dwight, and the state’s only supermax prison, Tamms.

PHELPS: “It’s a huge win for southern Illinois when we get Tamms back in the budget, and then all the adult transition centers, and then you have IYC Murphysboro … so that equals a lot of jobs for southern Illinois.  Particularly in Tamms.  Tamms sits in Alexander County.  Which is the poorest county in the state.  And that’s’ their biggest employer, is Tamms.”

Democratic Representative Brandon Phelps says to prevent Tamm’s closure, the budget includes money to re-purpose the prison so it could house medium-security inmates.

Phelps say that solves three issues:  it could alleviate overcrowding in other prisons, appease human rights advocates who’ve protested what they say is the inhumane treatment of Tamms inmateS, and it would save jobs.

But only if the governor goes along with the idea.

PHELPS: “Now, the still problem that we have right now is the governor could still come in and pretty much not fund it.”

While the House budget includes the money to keep Tamms and the other facilities open, Quinn still has the power to close any facility he wants.

That has Republican Representative Jim Watson worried.

WATSON: “We are treading water.”

The Jacksonville Developmental Center’s a big employer in his district.  Watson says the budget gives the governor a choice.

WATSON: “So the money could be used to keep it open, or it could be used to fund the transitions to close it.”

Of course, before Quinn has those options, the budget still has to win approval in the Senate, which is no guarantee.

There are signs, though, Democrats in the Senate are on board with the proposal.

At the same time the House was debating its budget, Senators were busy in committees, passing some of those seemingly impromptu pieces of legislation that come up at the end of session.

These include a pair of tax measures intended to dig up more money for education, which is part of the House budget.

SCHOENBERG: “The very fact that we’ve taken up closing those tax loopholes means that there’s an active effort afoot to try to find some middle ground on education funding.”

Senator Jeff Schoenberg is a Democrat from Evanston.

One proposal would tax oil companies that do business in Illinois for revenue they generate from oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico.  The other proposal creates a five-percent fee on satellite TV service, mirroring a fee people pay for cable TV.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno says the last-minute legislation is irresponsible.

RADOGNO: “Heaven help the taxpayers. We have 27 hours left here. How many more taxes can we impose? I mean, this is unbelievable.”

But Republican votes aren’t needed to pass a budget; at least, if everything gets done by the stroke of midnight.

After that, a constitutional provision kicks in requiring more votes to pass a budget, meaning the GOP would get a say.

Here’s betting Democrats will try hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Whatever problems Democrats have among themselves over how to trim the budget, they’d pale in comparison to the deeper cuts Republicans would demand.

—Amanda Vinicky

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