Budget sparks cooperation in Springfield

May 13, 2011

By Kristen McQueary

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

Spend a few days in Springfield during the budget negotiations and you might feel like Alice in Wonderland. Strange things are happening.

Democrats — traditionally the party of “yes” to new programs — are leading the effort in the House to cut spending.

Republicans— traditionally the party of “yes” to downsizing government — are voting in the Senate against cuts.

Both parties in the House are strangely cooperative as they prepare to pass their version of the budget. Last week, senators sliced about $216 million in spending, with an additional $1 billion to go before they say their numbers balance.

House members are expected to cut more deeply into education, human services and other core expenses.

The scene is in sharp contrast to last year’s deliberations, when both chambers skipped voting on tough bills. Instead, they passed a budget with large sums and left it to Gov. Pat Quinn to decide how to allocate the money.

Even the mood is unusual. Last year, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and House GOP  leader Tom Cross of Oswego traded jabs before the November election. This year, they are working together.

“Everything is different,” said state Representative Renée Kosel (R-New Lenox), who was elected in 1997. “I have never, ever sat in a room with Democrats and worked on a budget. This is what we’ve been asking for for years.”

As Senate Democrats seek to trim more than $1 billion in spending, they are taking aim at their own pet projects, including tuition assistance, substance abuse and domestic violence programs. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are demanding deeper cuts but have not put their ideas into legislation, fearing the Democrats might portray them as cold-blooded come election season.

The budget process in the Senate has been less cordial than in the House. State Senator Sam McCann (R-Carlinville) said Democrats did not include his party in negotiations. The Democrats, who hold a 35-24 majority, hurried their amendments onto the floor, he said, so McCann and other Republicans voted “no.”

“Quite frankly, I did not see anything they put forth until about an hour before we were expected to vote on it,” said McCann, a Tea Party favorite who voted against nine of 10 budget-reduction bills. “You can’t thumb through the pages, let alone read and digest anything on there.”

The Democratic bills did not go far enough, McCann and others said.

“Their bills don’t meet the constitutional obligation for a balanced budget,” said state Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), the GOP nominee for governor last year, who voted against Democratic cuts. “Their approach wasn’t comprehensive.”

Many Senate Republicans also voted “no” on bills to make the state’s full pension payment this year.

Those votes came as a surprise to state Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who led budget negotiations. “You can deal with pension payments by either skipping them or borrowing, which we’ve done the last two years and I think that’s a real mistake,” she said. “Or you can actually pay them out of cash, which is what we’re doing this year, and it’s clearly the most fiscally prudent approach.”

Kristen McQueary reports on Illinois state government for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.