SPRINGFIELD | Gov. Pat Quinn won't have a very cheery message when he unveils his latest budget plan Wednesday, say members of the General Assembly.
Overseeing a state beset by a litany of financial pressures, the Chicago Democrat could call for cuts in a number of programs, including education, which could see a $400 million reduction — the latest in a three-year slide.
“There's not going to be a whole lot of good news, whether it's Pat Quinn or anybody. There just isn't any good news,” said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
“I don’t look for it to be a rosy picture,” added state Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur.
In his fourth go-around in crafting a spending blueprint, Quinn continues to face many of the same problems that have defined his tenure as chief executive.
The state’s underfunded employee pension system continues to gobble up money that could otherwise be spent on other programs. The state also has a backlog of old bills that is hovering near $9 billion.
Add in the new wrinkle of a meltdown in the federal budget and the unknowns surrounding the recent approval of a tentative union contract affecting 35,000 state workers and you’ve got a recipe for a very cautious outlook from Quinn.
Lawmakers say there will be a fairly simple strategy to the doom and gloom expected to be spread by the governor: Fix the state's underfunded pension systems or face harsh reductions elsewhere.
“He will probably lay out Draconian cuts if pension reform doesn't pass. I suspect that will be his message,” Rose said.
“I hope the budget address reflects the reality of our problems in spending. We have to live within our means,” said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
Aides are saying little about the governor’s plans and it remains unclear whether Illinois is in for a repeat of the upheaval caused by last year’s decision to close dozens of state facilities.
After winning a lengthy battle to close the Tamms Correctional Center, youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet and halfway houses in Carbondale and Decatur, Quinn is still angling to close the Dwight Correctional Center and the Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, is among those concerned Quinn will try to close more facilities.
“He said he was going to,” Luechtefeld said. “Hopefully he doesn’t.”
Of particular concern is if Quinn wants to close another prison.
“We’re busting at the seams right now. And I think there’s better ways to do this. Hopefully he doesn’t announce any of those right now,” Luechtefeld said.
State Sen Dale Righter, R- Mattoon, said Quinn might have an easier time laying out any future facility closures if he offered a long-term plan for how the state will deal with the effects such closures might have.
“If the governor does it in the context of an overall plan, I think he’ll find this much easier to do,” Righter said. “I think that the closure of at least some more facilities is not inevitable, but it’s certainly possible.”
Funding for schools also may be in the cross hairs. When Quinn issued his revenue projections several weeks ago, he said education would receive $400 million less in the coming fiscal year.
State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, doesn’t believe that will be the case.
“That’s saber-rattling,” Bradley said.
As chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee, Bradley already is in the process of developing a budget based on a bipartisan blueprint lawmakers launched two years ago aimed at controlling how much the state spends each year.
“We’re hoping we can navigate our way through these waters without having to unduly scare people,” Bradley said.
“We expect that we’re going to have more revenue than anticipated. But, our costs are up significantly as well,” Bradley said. “The House is in the process of trying to get our plan in place and come up with a balanced budget that would continue to pay down our backlog of bills.”
State Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, also said he hopes the focus in the House will be on paying down old bills.
But, he said it will be tricky trying to balance that goal when state employee pension costs are rising at the same time federal assistance is waning.
“The more you pay down in old bills, the more pressure there is on the high-dollar items, which are education and health care,” Mautino said. “It’s going to be a tough year.”
State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D- East Moline, said he plans on taking a more active role in budget-making this year.
“It’s time to get Illinois’ house in order. I’m embarrassed to be in a state Legislature that can’t pay their bills,” Jacobs said. “You can’t afford things if you can’t pay for them. We’ve done that for a lot of years in Illinois and it’s time to stop.”
State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, said there is one bright spot Quinn could focus on: The state’s construction budget.
With a separate stream of money financing road, bridge and school construction, the governor has been crisscrossing the state during his tenure announcing a variety of job-creating projects.
In his district, Verschoore hopes to hear Quinn talk about spending more money on the new Moline campus of Western Illinois University.
“I think that we are getting better. Our finances are coming in better. I notice there is an uptick in revenues, which is good. Shows more people are working,” Verschoore said.