The House made the first move against Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget proposal Thursday, lowering the estimate of how much money the state should expect to take in next year by more than $200 million.
For a state that owes more than $8 billion in old bills, the change is hardly earth-shattering. But when accompanied with vows to spend less next year than in the current budget, the move sends a signal that the House, at least, is not going to give Quinn everything he wants. The final figure on the more important decision of how much lawmakers actually want to spend in the next budget has yet to be set.
The Democratic governor unveiled his budget proposal last week with estimates that the state would receive about $33.94 billion in general funds. Instead, the House set a lower figure at $33.719 billion.
Quinn’s budget office stood by its estimates and criticized the House’s lower estimates, saying, a “difference of more than $200 million will lead to even further reductions during a time when many legislators call for cuts but when cuts are proposed they say ‘don't cut here.’ ”
“Gov. Quinn proposed a responsible budget . . . which allowed for continued investment in education while making difficult decisions in other areas of government to find cost efficiencies due to decades of fiscal mismanagement,” said Kelly Kraft, Quinn’s budget spokeswoman.
Even so, the House overwhelmingly approved two resolutions, setting the lower bar for its own efforts in one and asking the Senate to join them in the second proposal.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, supports the lower House revenue estimate and believes it is “on target,” a spokeswoman said. Sen. Heather Steans, a Democratic budget point person from Chicago, predicted the Senate would approve the resolution.
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, plans to sponsor the resolution in the Senate, but she warned the “most difficult part of our work will be reaching consensus on how much the state should spend and where.”
Last year, the Senate Democrats held out for about $1 billion more in spending than the Madigan-Cross team effort in the House, and the governor wanted to spend about $2 billion more than the House. But the House largely prevailed.
On Thursday, Cross told colleagues that the state needs to make major strides toward knocking down the $8 billion-plus backlog of old bills. Quinn suggested using only $163 million for old bills — about 2 percent of the more than $8 billion the state owes.
Cross said lawmakers have to find a “sizable” amount of money in the next budget to start paying old bills, but he did not suggest a specific level. “If we do a billion a year, we can have them paid off in eight years,” Cross said. “If we do less, it’ll take more. If do more, we can do it in fewer years.”
Madigan said there will be a “spending cap” placed on the budget under a process starting next week. The new budget year begins July 1.
Officials have their work cut out for them. For Medicaid alone, the governor has asked lawmakers to help find $2.7 billion in savings. Cross said the state must also cut the costs of public employee pensions, insurance and pay.
Not every House lawmaker was happy to go along with the resolutions.
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, voted against both measures. She said she was “incredibly frustrated” because rank-and-file lawmakers should have “more than 20 minutes to think about” one of the most critical issues of the spring session.
“I feel completely unprepared to make that decision right now, given the time-frame we’ve been allowed,” Nekritz said.
Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, R-Des Plaines, also opposed the measures. She questioned whether the decision was being made in a vacuum without knowing if rank-and-file lawmakers will have as much input in shaping the budget as they did last year in the House.
Rep. John Bradley, the Marion Democrat who chaired the committee that came up with the estimate, defended it because financial experts were quizzed thoroughly to arrive at the figure.
“This is the way a business does it. This is the way a family does it.… We figure out how much money we have and then we proceed from there,” Bradley said, saying the state will be able to “continue the process of paying down our back bills.”