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Miller: State budget process looking more collegial this year

Updated: April 6, 2012 8:07AM



Last year, the Illinois House was able to control the Statehouse budget process by releasing low-ball state revenue estimates early on and then vowing to stick to those numbers no matter what.

The Senate Democrats wanted to spend more money but were eventually stymied by the House’s revenue estimates. There was just no way around the problem.

Some Senate Democrats thought about forcing the spring session into overtime, but that would’ve been stupid because it would’ve required a three-fifths majority to approve the budget — and that would’ve given the Republicans a seat at the table. And the Republicans wouldn’t want to spend more money.

It’s too early to tell, but this year may be different. Last week, the House kicked off the budget process by locking in the chamber’s new revenue estimates. The estimates are $221 million below the governor’s projections and $271 million below those of the General Assembly’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

The main differences are in income tax revenue. The House’s estimate for personal income tax collections is $302 million below the governor’s, while the corporate income tax estimate is about $50 million above the governor’s.

The differences aren’t nearly as dramatic as last year’s round of budget-making, when the House’s estimates ended up being about $1 billion below the Senate’s. But a difference of $221 to 271 million is still quite significant, particularly in a year when so many popular state programs are facing the chopping block.

The Senate Democrats basically got rolled last year and had to swallow cuts that many members did not want. They were hampered not only by the House’s lower revenue projections but also because their two new appropriations committee chairmen got bogged down in the details of the state’s new “budgeting for results” law. The hearings on that new law slowed the Senate’s budget process and allowed the House to pass its appropriations bills first.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said last week that there would be some changes in the way his chamber deals with the budget this year. He also said he had spoken with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), and as a result, strongly believed that this year’s process would be far more cooperative than last year’s.

And, indeed, there have been changes. The new House revenue forecasts were devised in cooperation with the Senate Revenue Committee.

Even so, expecting lower revenue won’t go down well with the more liberal members of the Senate Democrats, most of whom are outraged at the cuts proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn and who have a unified and powerful voice. Finding another $250 million in cutbacks will undoubtedly be seen as a bridge too far.

These estimates also come in the context of the enormous pressure to slash Medicaid spending by $2.7 billion. The liberal push-back against that demand by Quinn is enormous — despite the very real and credible evidence that ignoring the problem, or even just coming up with a partial solution, will lead to a systemic crisis in a few years.

Doing nothing will create a roughly $21 billion mountain of overdue Medicaid bills in five years. And the total will keep going up after that. The whole system could crash.

But the people who run the government might also try a bit of old-time Statehouse fudging.

OK, we’re now going to do a little math, but it isn’t hard, so stay with me.

Quinn wanted to take $162 million next fiscal year and pay off past-due bills. Steve Schnorf, a former state budget director, suggested last week that Quinn might put that $162 million back into state spending programs. The cuts that would then have to be made would total $59 million ($221 million via the House’s revenue forecast minus $162 million returned to the budget). That would be a lot easier to swallow.

Even so, the uproar over Quinn’s proposed budget and Medicaid cuts is so intense that even if the legislative leaders and the governor do manage a bit of fudging, there are going to be some very furious people in the Statehouse the rest of the spring. Nobody is in for a pleasant experience.

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



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