By Ryan Keith
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Painful closings and layoffs are right around the corner. State revenues are plummeting. Unpaid bills are stacking up in record amounts.
Like the economy, the budget picture for the state of Illinois is a growing mess. But there’s little sign of urgency among those in state government in charge of cleaning it up.
State senators didn’t take any budget action last week. Lawmakers don’t predict major breakthroughs when both the House and Senate return Wednesday for the second week of the fall veto session. They’re working on other priorities, such as electing new leaders and handling bills left unresolved this summer.
Up to the governor
Gov. Rod Blagojevich continues to sit on a measure lawmakers approved two months ago to forestall the initial round of cuts, and won’t say when he’ll act.
The waiting continues.
“It’s pretty difficult for us to do anything. It pretty much is left up to the governor and managing the budget,” said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield. “I don’t know what else we could do.”
But soon, the situation will hit home all around Illinois.
Two dozen state parks and historic sites are scheduled for closing, and more than 300 state workers are supposed to be laid off Nov. 30.
The governor’s State Revenue Department warned early last week that money coming into state coffers was falling a projected $800 million below budgeted levels, and that shortfall could top $1 billion in a few months.
And Thursday, Comptroller Dan Hynes asked for help from lawmakers and the governor to pay down a record $4 billion backlog in unpaid state bills — a total that could reach $5 billion by spring.
Legislators could try to ease the bill backlog soon, but there probably will be more finger pointing than concrete answers.
“If it was easy, we would have solved it,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and House Democrats’ lead budget negotiator.
The administration says legislators sent them a budget with far too much spending and they have no option but to make tough choices. They won’t commit to stopping the Nov. 30 cuts because of the money uncertainty.
Lawmakers from both parties say the onus is on Blagojevich. They say there’s still plenty of money in the budget to cover expenses into the early part of next year, so he should rescind the planned cuts and move money around to cover shortfalls.
“Whatever they’re cutting can be managed for maximum or minimum impact,” said Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
Some even question whether the governor is exaggerating cuts now to turn the tables on legislators.
“I think there’s a lot of people who have been suspicious of that since day one,” said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville.
Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said critical lawmakers are looking at the situation in “exactly the wrong way.” He says the governor is going to be fiscally responsible during troubling economic times and calls on both government leaders and Illinois residents to help deal with the crisis.
“This isn’t something that one person can fix,” Guerrero said. “Everyone needs to be involved.”
Legislators will get another dose of budget reality Wednesday when their Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability provides its update on state revenue. Lawmakers will face more uncertainty when they go home Friday until January.
“We are getting to the point where there’s no way to avoid having people feel it. Real people feel these budget cuts,” Radogno said.
Republicans say they shouldn’t be blamed because Democrats have full control of state government and have approved budgets with too much spending. Democrats say they’ve pushed ideas to bring in more money that repeatedly have been defeated in the legislature.
Hannig said lawmakers probably will look at short-term borrowing this week to deal with the bill backlog and could look to take more money out of dedicated state funds to try to fill back in some of the gaping holes.
He acknowledged real solutions are scarce.
“There’s no direction out there where people are saying we should bite the bullet and raise taxes or bite the bullet and cut spending,” Hannig said.
Cutting billions of dollars in spending would require deep sacrifice. Raising more money isn’t easy, either.
Ideas batted around before to raise billions of dollars face new obstacles. The House has rejected gambling expansion several times. Leasing the state lottery and borrowing to pay down pension debt are more remote than ever because of the nation’s credit crunch.
Blagojevich has repeatedly vowed to reject any general income or sales tax increase.
“The governor still doesn’t think that taxing our way out is the solution,” Guerrero said.
But some Democrats say they have little choice but to consider those options.
“I wouldn’t limit any revenue enhancement,” said Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat and top contender to become the next state Senate president. “That’s something all of us need to discuss.”
Expect the budget back-and-forth to continue well into next year, with lawmakers and the governor continuing to size up each other and the fallout of the mess.
“If we have to piecemeal this thing along as we go, which it looks like that’s the way its going to have to happen, let’s do it,” Sullivan said.