by John Patterson
“Same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” – Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime.
When Illinois lawmakers return to the Capitol to embark on their 2010 spring session, they’ll find new laptop computers. It is perhaps the only truly new item competing for their attention in the coming months.
Their legislative agenda is a burgeoning plate of political leftovers chock full of issues put off and punted in recent years, each snowballing the consequences for taxpayers and those who rely on state services or funding.
And so this session begins where the last left off, with the state budget — a financial plan thus far “balanced” by a series of loans and delayed payments and now predicted to be awash in a sea of red ink potentially exceeding $12 billion by the time July rolls around. How, or if, lawmakers tackle the budget is the central focus of the session, ultimately dictating how education, health care and other areas fare.
“I’m not a big one issue kind of guy. Public policy is a pretty complex thing,” says Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “That said, this is a one-issue session. You’ve got a $13 billion revenue shortfall in what is supposed to be about a $26 billion budget. That’s 50 percent, as I do math. They can’t beg, borrow or steal their way around it.”
Not that they haven’t tried.
The current budget was “balanced” by borrowing $3 billion to make employee pension payments because there was no consensus on raising taxes or massive spending cuts. Now that $3 billion pension responsibility will be back — and will have grown — along with payments on last year’s borrowing, all while the billions in federal stimulus money that propped up education and health care budgets is gone. Economic indicators provide little hope for a quick recovery or even an indication that the bottom has been reached.
The message, lawmakers say, to school districts, colleges, universities, human service providers and others who rely on the state is be happy if you get what you had before.
Behind the scenes, lawmakers and political observers are already looking ahead to the optimistically scheduled May 7 end of this spring session before it’s even begun. The question is whether the state’s financial situation has indeed become so dire that a majority of lawmakers will support a tax increase, or if some scheme of short-term budgeting, borrowing and stalled payments will again buy elected officials more time, specifically, until after the November elections.
It’s a refrain political observers have heard repeatedly as conspiracies and excuses run rampant regarding what’s going to happen with the budget and taxes.
First it was the early 2009 impeachment and ouster of Gov. Rod Blagojevich that was supposed to lead to serious budgeting and problem solving — if not clear the decks for an income tax increase.
“Then, when the legislature didn’t deal with the situation in the spring, there was some talk it would deal with the situation after [candidate] filing time, when the lawmakers would know whether they had primary competition and the strength of what competition they might have,” says Mike Lawrence, former spokesman for Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and the retired executive director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
But that didn’t pan out either.
“Then we were told it would happen after the primary,” says Lawrence. “You know, there’s always an election nearby in Illinois.”
Heading into this legislative session, all eyes turn to the Illinois House and Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat. Any proposals for raising taxes are likely to begin there.
The Illinois Senate, where Democrats have the votes to control the entire agenda, approved an income tax increase and sales tax expansion last year in an effort to balance the budget. But the proposal was never called for a vote in the Illinois House, which instead voted down a smaller income tax increase.
This session, don’t look for the Senate to lead the way again. Many tax hike supporters in that chamber feel burned by events in the Illinois House and believe it is the state representatives’ turn to take the reins on any tax initiatives.
“It has to pass both chambers. We’ve already done it,” says Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. He also wants the House to act on a $1-per-pack cigarette tax the Senate approved last year to boost health care spending, calling it a “top priority” for this session.
But there’s by no means any consensus on raising taxes or a sense that such action is inevitable this session.
“I think the [income] tax increase lost in the form it was in in the House,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said when asked if there’s growing agreement among lawmakers on higher taxes.
Still, Brown agrees all top issues hinge on budget talks and the “national fiscal crisis that is affecting Illinois and every state in the union.”
Notice the reference to “national” economic problems?
It’s a recent refrain being repeated in many Illinois political circles. Democrats, facing a wave of economic criticism by the political minority Republicans, increasingly point out that Illinois is not alone in its financial troubles, and there’s growing interest in statehouses across the nation for some kind of new stimulus targeting their budgets.
“For all of you who want to make it out to be an Illinois-only problem or Democrat-only problem, you need to peek out of your tunnel and look around the country,” says Brown.
“Another option is to recognize that this is a national problem. Will states get the same attention that big banks and insurance companies got?”
However, the $787 billion stimulus program approved earlier this year gave billions to the states, not only for construction projects but to plug education and health care budget holes as state resources dwindled.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there are mounting fears of the growing deficit. Having bailed out the banking and auto industries, it might be time to stop ballooning the red ink.
“They’ve got a lot of pressure in Congress not to give money to the states,” says Martire, head of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.
That thinking, however, could be on a collision course with the coming outcry from states as they are about to be cut off by the federal assistance offered in last year’s stimulus plan. The state “bailout” aspect largely ends in the current budget year and will leave behind huge financial challenges in Illinois.
In each of the past two budgets, the state received more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars that went for general state aid to school districts, money that retained local teaching jobs and averted massive cuts to programs and staff. Barring a new stimulus program, that money is essentially exhausted in the current budget, but finances have not improved for local districts or the state.
“We’d have to see an additional $1 billion in state revenues just to break even,” says Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover.
Turning to Washington, D.C., and President Barack Obama’s administration isn’t the only alternative being floated.
Some lawmakers say gambling expansion should be in the mix. Last year, the Illinois Senate approved a plan that would put casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Lake County and Danville. The plan has not advanced in the House, though it remains pending. In recent years, there’s been an almost annual run at gambling expansion, regardless of the budget situation. Supporters have said such an expansion could eventually bring in more than $1 billion a year when the casinos are up and running.
“I have not changed my mind that we could easily handle a few more riverboats,” says state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat. “I think we can find the votes to pass a gambling bill. If there’s the desire.”
But even Lang says gambling expansion isn’t the solution. If approved, he says, it would be at least a couple of years before the state would start getting enough money to begin to put a dent in its budget problems. Casinos just don’t sprout up overnight, and Illinois needs money — lots of it — now.
Meanwhile, the political minority Republicans hope to use the economic pressures the ruling Democrats face to bring out long-sought spending reforms and an overhaul of the legislative mapmaking process.
So far, they’re largely unwilling to talk about new revenues — Capitol-speak for tax increases.
“When things are going well, no one wants to change anything,” says Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. “So while things are extremely difficult now, we shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make changes in state government that should have been made a long time ago.”
Topping Republicans’ list of priorities are pension and Medicaid reforms, along with more employer friendly legislation aimed to lure more jobs to Illinois.
“These kinds of things have been paid lip service to, and nothing has been done,” Schuh said.
Despite the complete Democratic control of state government, the Republicans do play a crucial role. Unlike the Democratic-run Senate, the Democratic majority in the House so far has been unable to assemble the votes for a tax increase.
Political observers say Democrats fear repercussions at the voting booth and want any tax increase to have some sort of bipartisan support for political cover.
In that sense, this session could boil down to a waiting game. Republicans may try to force action on as many issues as possible before they say they’ll consider putting votes on any budget-fixing tax increase. Democrats may hold out on the belief that there are Republicans who will vote for a tax increase to preserve local health care agencies and social programs that are increasingly jeopardized by the state’s economic malaise.
“One of two things will happen,” Martire predicts. “They are either going to be ‘same as it ever was’ and pass a six-month budget and deal with it in the veto session. Or [House Republican leader Tom] Cross will cut a deal so they can do a structured roll call, so people can get out of there and focus on their campaigns. That’s really what I see.”
But if political observers see Cross and the Republicans playing a key role, the House Republican leader says it is the Democrats who should be the focus, since they are in control and have routinely excluded his GOP members from negotiations.
“I don’t know what the strategy is. It takes 60 votes to pass any bill, and the speaker has 70,” Cross says. “When he wants to pass something, he’s found the votes. When he doesn’t, he finds a multitude of excuses.
“That’s the bottom-line question: What does the speaker want?”
Meanwhile, the old problems of the budget could face at least one new wrinkle this session in the form of the expected sale of the nearly vacant, maximum-security Thomson prison to the federal government for use as a federal penitentiary. The prison could house nearly 100 detainees upon the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
The state finished construction of the nearly $120 million state-of-the-art prison in 2001, but a sinking state and national economy — ironically caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks — meant Illinois never had enough money to staff the prison. President Barack Obama’s administration in December agreed to buy the prison, with part of it to be used to house suspected terrorists.
That triggered a political firestorm, as several Republicans running for statewide office accused Quinn of threatening Illinoisans’ security by bringing terrorists to their backyards. Lawmakers are still awaiting a possible purchase price, and only recently did Quinn’s administration file the paperwork that triggered a legislative committee’s review of the plan that would close the prison as a state facility. While that review is merely advisory, it sets in motion a legal timeline that could make the prison transaction one of the first things lawmakers deal with this year.
Similarly, one Republican running for governor, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, has suggested selling off the state’s tollway system if a private manager can better run the 274-mile highway system in northern Illinois. While he’s not touting it as a budget salve, the attraction to others could well be a potential multibillion- dollar check from such a buyer. Chicago received $1.8 billion for the 7.8-mile Skyway, and Indiana got nearly $4 billion upfront when it leased out its 157-mile tollway system.
Illinois first looked at such a deal in 2006, but it never developed. And while the sheer size of the possible payout is certain to invite attention, Indiana’s governor cast doubts on Illinois’ prospects, telling the Times of Northwest Indiana that the current state of the financial markets would likely result in fewer dollars.
“We might still have gotten the deal done, but it wouldn’t have been for $3.9 billion or close to it,” Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels recently said at a business gathering, after learning of renewed Illinois interest in a tollway sale or lease.
And there will be other, nonbudgetary issues that could arise.
The death penalty has again drawn scrutiny because of continuing perceived disparities in how it is administered. The situation was highlighted in a pair of high-profile Chicago-suburban homicides.
James Degorski was sent to life in prison for his role in killing seven people at a Brown’s Chicken and Pasta in Palatine. The other killer in that case had already been sentenced to life behind bars. Just weeks later, another jury would order lethal injection for Brian Dugan for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old Naperville girl. Both cases had haunted legal circles for years, with two other men serving more than a decade on death row for Dugan’s crimes before being exonerated.
The state hasn’t seriously examined the death penalty since 2003 in the wake of more than a dozen exonerations that ultimately prompted then-Gov. George Ryan to commute every death sentence to life in prison just before he left office. Republican governor hopeful Jim Ryan — who once helped prosecute the men wrongly convicted in the Dugan case — has called for further reducing the number of crimes that can bring about a death sentence.
But that recommendation was similarly contained in a 2003 report on reforming the death penalty and was not embraced by lawmakers. In an election year when incumbents are wary of votes that could make them appear soft on crime, taking the death penalty off the table isn’t likely to have much traction.
Reforming red-light cameras is also expected to top a local agenda for many suburban Chicago lawmakers. The move could bring about a typical Chicago- versus-the suburbs bout in the General Assembly. Mayor Richard Daley is very supportive of the cameras that bring in tens of millions of dollars for his budget. Yet recent investigations into the use of cameras to issue red-light tickets have drummed up public discontent. Angst over the widespread use of such cameras was recently credited with sinking attempts to broaden such enforcement to speeding violations and to institute it in other regions of the state.
A growing number of lawmakers want the state to revisit the laws that allow such camera enforcement, and Senate President Cullerton also favors a review.
But in the end, this legislative session is expected to be almost singular in focus.
“Clearly the one issue that dominates all other issues is the budget. That is going to drive them,” says Martire. “It’s not going to be about the death penalty or anything else.”
And, still, the budget issue is shrouded in uncertainty.
At the moment, it’s not even clear exactly when Quinn will unveil his plan that’s sure to renew his call for a tax increase. The budget speech is scheduled for February, but Quinn sought to push the date back into March. However, Republicans blocked that during the fall legislative session in October. If Democrats want, they could move the speech back without needing Republican votes, now that the new year has arrived.
Further complicating matters is the early interruption of the 2010 primary elections. While relatively few incumbent lawmakers have primary challenges, the February 2 contest could signal voter satisfaction, or lack thereof, in Quinn.
Both he and Democratic challenger Dan Hynes, the state’s comptroller, are pushing for tax increases in their budget solutions. If voters back Quinn, it could be viewed as a legislative mandate. On the other hand, Republican candidates are united in their anti-tax message, and numerous Demo- crats fear 2010 is shaping up to be a bad year for the party.
“Gov. Quinn’s going to be reluctant to press for a tax increase if he wins the primary. The Republican rhetoric has been strongly anti-tax, even though the majority of Republican gubernatorial candidates know that at some point, we’re going to have to raise taxes,” says Lawrence. “It’s going to be very difficult for Gov. Quinn to press for tax increases when he’s facing that kind of rhetoric.”
There’s similar mixed sentiment on what a primary loss would mean for Quinn.
“You could argue both sides of that. If he loses, he could just say: ‘Here I go. I’m going to address the problems we have without having to worry about the next election,’” says Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook. “Or, it might scare everybody so bad that it would be impossible to put the votes on it.”
A primary loss would also quickly relegate Quinn to lame-duck status, and lawmakers have historically been quick to minimize the role of any governor who won’t be returning.
It has many predicting that a budget solution may remain elusive in the coming months, that lawmakers will leave in May having fixed little and that this entire scenario will repeat itself headed into 2011, though likely under worsening economic conditions.
“I hope I’m wrong about this. I would hope the governor and the legislature will squarely address the fiscal situation,” says Lawrence, looking ahead to the end of the spring session.
“But what I fear I will be telling you is, the governor and legislature failed to address a humongous deficit and have further jeopardized the health of the state and generations to come.”
John Patterson covers the Capitol for the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald.
Illinois Issues, January 2010