DCC clears 2nd hurdle to stay open
Springfield, Ill. — End-of-session disputes Wednesday, including a remarkable confrontation between Illinois House leaders, complicated the General Assembly’s efforts to control rising pension costs and pass a painful state budget.
House Democrats approved a version of the budget despite fierce opposition from Republicans who originally helped draft it. The budget appears to be stingier than a version approved by the Senate, so the differences will have to be worked out before the spring legislative session can end.
In addition to addressing pensions, the Legislature also has to pass a state budget — one that is likely to cut most programs because of climbing expenses and stagnating revenues.
The House version includes money to operate prisons in Dwight and Tamms that Gov. Pat Quinn had proposed closing. Democrats said that money was restored partly to appease Republicans.
Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, said Republicans told him they would not support a budget that did not keep all state facilities open.
“We found the money. Isn’t that something?” Crespo said.
Dwight Mayor Bill Wilkey said the fact that money was appropriated in both House and Senate budget proposals was a great development.
“I think we’ve crossed hurdle number two,” the mayor said. “The COGFA (Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability) hearing and recommendation to keep Dwight prison open was the first hurdle. But we know the fight’s not over.”
“We’ve been working vigorously in Springfield and I’m pretty hopeful at this point,” Wilkey said.
“It’s because of great support we’ve received from Representatives Jason Barickman, Frank Mautino and Pam Roth and Senators Sue Rezin, Shane Cultra and Toi Hutchison. I’ve been told this budget session will be an all-nighter.
“The mood in Dwight has been a little down, especially after all the lay-off notices that went out, which were required by contract. I think that’s been weighing on everyone. However, in talking to people I’ve tried to keep everyone positive and I think the union has had that message, too.”
The House budget does contain money to keep open the Jacksonville Developmental Center and other state mental health facilities, prisons and youth centers. Wilkey said he had been told that the Senate’s own budget also contained funding for these state facilities.
However, Rep. Jim Watson, R-Jacksonville, said the budget is structured so that Gov. Pat Quinn can still close facilities.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, chairman of the House Human Services Appropriations Committee, agreed Quinn will have the last word.
“Whether or not the governor intends on actually spending that money, that’s a policy decision, not so much a budget decision,” she said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees praised the House budget for keeping facilities open, but also warned that it contains “cuts that concern us in several areas.”
Legislators also hope to approve a pension plan, although there’s a bitter disagreement about whether it should shift some costs to schools and universities. And a major gambling expansion could also get a final vote before the end of session, scheduled for midnight Thursday. The Illinois House has also approved legislation allowing a land-based casino in Chicago, four more on riverboats in various cities and slot machines at ailing horse racing tracks. Supporters are likely to push for a vote in the Senate — which has approved similar plans in the past.
Republican frustration in the House boiled over Wednesday night.
They accused Democrats of bargaining in bad faith and padding the state budget. They tried to halt debate with parliamentary maneuvers and charged that Democrats cut diabetes funding to punish Republican lawmakers whose children suffer from diabetes.
They challenged House Speaker Michael Madigan to explain himself — an unusually personal approach in a chamber that gives great deference to the powerful speaker.
Visibly angry, Madigan suggested Republicans were opposing the budget they helped draft because they aren’t getting their way on pensions. Madigan raised his voice, a rarity for the soft-spoken Chicago Democrat.
“Thank you very much for your interest,” Madigan snapped at the Republicans who had demanded an explanation.
Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, then pressed Madigan on whether he would allow legislators to consider a version of the pension plan that won’t hit schools with new retirement costs. He never got a straight answer.
“I’m not going to offer you any predictions,” Madigan said.
House Republicans and Democrats had been collaborating on a budget that would cut most areas of state government. Then Madigan released a surprise pension proposal that would make schools and colleges responsible for their employees’ future retirement costs.
Republicans called Madigan’s pension move a betrayal.
“We thought we had some agreements on where we would go, and then yesterday we got a bill that says, ‘No, that’s all out the window because I’m the speaker, I can do whatever I please,’” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro.
House Majority Leader Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said it makes no sense for Republicans to abandon budget efforts.
“Right now, Republicans in the House are in a snit and they’re not playing ball. They’re picking up their marbles and going home,” Currie said.
And in the Senate, a committee spent hours discussing pensions but wound up not even taking a vote.
The state is obligated to contribute an increasing amount of money each year to retirement funds for public employees. The obligation chips away at the rest of the state’s needs, so officials are trying to change the payment schedule.
One way to justify smaller payments would be to reduce the annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees. While public-employee unions object, the idea seems to have solid support in the Legislature.
Another way is to make schools, universities and community colleges gradually take over the retirement costs the state now pays. That’s what triggered such strong opposition when Madigan pushed it through committee with little notice.