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Illinois budget war has reached a lull

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2009 - (SPRINGFIELD) Illinois is having a miserable year. Between booting its governor out of office for public corruption and trying to plug a massive budget hole in the middle of an economic downturn, the state's seen better days.

The worst part of the drama is that it's only through act 1.

After blowing a May 31 deadline, lawmakers passed a state budget this month. But the plan puts Gov. Pat Quinn in the position of making cuts that could include massive state employee layoffs, more than two weeks worth of furlough days and less money for such social services as home care for the elderly or subsidized child care for children of poor parents.

To help balance the books, lawmakers approved borrowing more than $3 billion and delaying an almost equal amount in payments. They also gave Quinn the OK to cut approximately $1 billion from the budget.

About 550 layoffs are already in the works. The state began notifying unions and non-union employees two weeks ago that their days are numbered, according to the governor's Office of Management and Budget. he layoffs kick in on Aug. 17 for non-union employees and Sept. 30 for union workers and are broken down by department and county.

  • Department of Corrections; 419 layoffs; Macon, Rock Island, Logan, Fayette, Johnson and Sangamon.
  • Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity; 13 layoffs; Sangamon and Cook.
  • Department of Healthcare and Family Services; 26 layoffs; Sangamon, St. Clair, Will, Winnebago and Cook.
  • Department of Human Services; 55 layoffs; Sangamon, Logan, Morgan, Williamson, Cook.
  • Department of Revenue; 39 layoffs; Sangamon, Cook Counties
  • Labor Relations Board; 1 layoff; Cook County

His administration is tightlipped about what cuts are in the pipeline, but they could include laying off 2,600 state employees, closing prisons or releasing prisoners early. Mandatory furlough days and stalling payments on state bills are also in the mix to tighten the state's financial belt.

The state is starting out with 553 layoffs ranging from 419 at the Department of Corrections to 26 at the Department of Child and Family Services, according to Alka Nayyar, a spokeswoman for the state's Central Management Services.

When asked about belt tightening, Anders Lindall, spokesman for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, "The state has a skeleton staff left. Skeletons don't wear belts."

He says lawmakers shouldn't balance the budget on the backs of already overworked state employees and cash-strapped state services. Quinn still needs AFSCME's permission to institute employee furlough days because they change the terms of the union contracts.

Social services are also in the line of fire.

"Any cut in a social service agency's budget is difficult to swallow," said state Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson Sr., D-East St. Louis. He says he won't know what the budget means to the Metro East until Quinn decides how to dish out his cuts.

The hurt can come in several forms other than layoffs, such as cuts to mental health programs, domestic abuse prevention and rape crisis centers, autism services and other social services.

"It's real triage at this point," said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He expects Quinn to ratchet up the pressure by suggesting dramatic cuts, stirring the pot and forcing lawmakers into raising the income tax.

The governor has wanted to increase income taxes in Illinois for months, saying his plan would spare lower-income families from the increase. He wanted a 50 percent hike -- increasing the income tax to 3.5 percent -- though that and other proposals failed to pass out of the legislature.

Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, and Senate Democrats voted for an income tax increase in May, which would have raised oodles of money to help plug the budget hole. But the plan went no where in the House.

"If these programs are important to you, you have to fund them," said Clayborne, a top Democratic lieutenant.

Lawmakers are expected back in Springfield in October, but it will take a super majority to pass anything this fall - including a tax increase. If they wait until January, passage would only need a majority vote.

The simple majority doesn't erase the political considerations. All 118 seats in the House are up for election and a vote for a tax increase could be used against incumbents in a February primary.

"The reality is you can only spend what you have, and right now we're facing a tough economic situation," said Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville. "The state, like other states, is facing significant shortfalls. Tough decisions have to be made."

But lawmakers could opt to forgo the tax increase, said Redfield, a longtime observer of Illinois politics. The state could try to stretch the budget to last all year, he said but cuts will eventually hit education and health care - two of the most expensive pieces of the budget pie.

The Illinois Board of Education this week made $389 million in cuts to such programs as early education and classes for drop-out students.

Still, the budget isn't all gloom and doom. The state is kick starting a $31 billion statewide construction plan that includes a new Mississippi River Bridge and interchange and a new science building at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Funding for these projects will come from legalization of video gambling, higher fees for driver's licenses and higher taxes on some consumer items including wine, beer and liquor.

Officials say the program will create 439,000 jobs, raising more income and sales tax to help the state economy.

Andrea Zelinski is a freelance writer based in Springfield.