Illinois budget inspires confusing, misleading claims

February 27, 2012

CHRISTOPHER WILLS, Associated Press

A state budget, like the one Gov. Pat Quinn proposed last week, practically guarantees a flood of confusing, misleading and surprising statements. After all, it's an incredibly complex document that can stir up anger over both policy and politics.

Here's a closer look at what Illinois officials have said about spending, prison overcrowding and political leadership.

Spending: Up or down?

In his budget address, Quinn said his proposed budget "calls for $425 million less in agency spending than last year's budget." Background material from his office says agencies would spend $901 million less than they did five years ago, a 3.5 percent drop.

Meanwhile, Republicans insist Quinn's budget actually would increase spending by $50 million from last year and a whopping $3.4 billion from five years ago.

Who's right? Both sides are, depending on what kind of spending you count.

Quinn is counting the dollars that he has the most ability to control — money for salaries or rent, for instance. He calls it "agency spending," meaning the money spent by the agencies he oversees.

He chooses not to count certain kinds of spending that increase more or less automatically. Mostly, that's pension costs, which are set by state law, and interest on debts. The governor and Legislature have taken some steps to limit pension expenses, and Quinn is now proposing more, but it's a far more complex task than routine budget-cutting.

Republicans consider Quinn's approach to be misleading. If you want an accurate view of state spending, they say, you have to include everything, even the difficult parts of the budget and the cost of borrowing money.

Independent budget experts are split on the best way to measure Quinn's budget-cutting progress.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability called Quinn's approach "quite honest." Chicago's Civic Federation said it doesn't make sense to look at state spending without counting Medicaid and pensions.

Prison population declining?

Illinois prisons are overcrowded — dangerously so, according to the union that represents guards. The most recent Corrections Department report shows 48,620 inmates crammed into space designed for 33,704.

So when Quinn proposed closing two prisons and six halfway houses, a natural question was how the remaining institutions could absorb those people.

"The prison population is actually declining," Quinn's chief of staff, Jack Lavin, told reporters. "We'll continue to work on that, but the trend right now is that it has declined somewhat."

Actually, Corrections Department statistics show population has increased pretty steadily for the past decade. At the end of November, it was 2.3 percent above the 2010 level and 6.6 percent above 2001. Annual reports don't reveal any significant drop in population since 2002.

To support Lavin's claim of a downward trend, the Corrections Department offered newer numbers showing a drop of 725 prisoners, or 1.5 percent, in the last five months. In addition, the department projects a drop of 2,746 in the next budget year.

Why does the department expect such a dramatic decline? That's not entirely clear.

A spokeswoman said it's based on plans to close those six halfway houses for inmates nearing the end of their sentences. The logic seems to be: The department can close some facilities because the population will drop, and the population will drop partly because the department is closing some facilities.

But releasing everyone in those halfway houses, known as adult transition centers, would account for less than half the drop that Corrections is predicting.

Also, closing the centers wouldn't change conditions for inmates and guards inside actual prisons, which are overcrowded now by nearly 15,000 people. Closing two maximum-security prisons will make the remaining prisons even more crowded unless the governor comes up with something unexpected.

Pension leadership

In advance of Quinn's budget address, two Republican officials spoke to reporters about their concerns with the governor's past performance. Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, and U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria both accused Quinn of failing to lead on the issue of controlling pension costs.

"Gov. Quinn's only solution to date has been to appoint a commission to study the issue," Brady said. Schock complained of an "unwillingness to lead."

Brady and Schock may wish that Quinn had done more, but it's not accurate to say the governor hasn't led at all.

Quinn was a vocal advocate for a pension overhaul that passed in early 2010 with overwhelming support from both parties. The legislation took a step toward limiting future pension costs by cutting benefits for new government employees.

The change meant that new employees must wait until age 67, instead of 60, to retire with full benefits. Cost-of-living adjustments are more limited. Pension checks are based a broader picture of employee salaries, so that a sudden raise at the end of a career doesn't have so much weight.

Brady implied that Quinn hasn't been more aggressive on pensions because he's too friendly with labor. "Is he going to stand up to his union backers and support a plan to reduce state pensions or is he going to back down?" Brady asked.

But Quinn supported the 2010 pension changes despite opposition from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. And he has blocked union raises, tried to cut jobs and pushed to shut down state facilities even when AFSCME objected.