Pat Quinn
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn speaks to Mitsubishi Motors North America President Shinichi Kurihara on Friday, Feb 4, 2011, at the MMNA plant in Normal. (The Pantagraph/STEVE SMEDLEY) STEVE SMEDLEY

SPRINGFIELD -- Last month, Illinois lawmakers granted Gov. Pat Quinn his No. 1 wish when they approved an income tax increase designed to help close a massive budget gap.

But when the governor outlines his latest budget plan on Wednesday, it will be clear there is still work to do before the state is on firm financial footing.

From renewing his call for an $8.75 billion borrowing plan to pushing for an increase in the cigarette tax, Quinn is expected to ask legislators to make another series of tough choices in the coming months. And, he could offer a glimpse of what else he plans to cut from the budget as he attempts to rein in spending to meet new spending caps.

"It's going to be a lean year," Quinn warned during a stop in Chicago on Friday. The fiscal year begins July 1.

Wednesday marks Quinn's third budget address, but his first since being elected to a full, four-year term. Lawmakers say they hope Quinn presents a reasonable proposal that can find support on both sides of the aisle.

"The first thing I would like to hear from Gov. Quinn is probably the same thing that I hoped to hear from him last year, and the year before, and from his predecessor for at least three or four years before that: ‘We're not going to spend any new money.' That's what I'd like to hear," said state Rep. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon.

Quinn's office has been tight-lipped about details of his plan, but lawmakers have been given some information about what to expect.

Besides the borrowing plan, Quinn also may call for a $1-per-pack increase in the state's cigarette tax. Similar proposals have been blocked in recent years, primarily over fears that border-area residents will purchase cigarettes and other items in other states.

At the same time, Quinn will likely avoid talk of pension cuts and retiree health insurance changes because he thinks those issues can only be negotiated with the labor unions that represent state workers.

In a hearing last week, Quinn's deputy budget chief, Malcolm Weems, confirmed the borrowing plan remains a key element in the governor's budget-balancing arsenal.

The proposal, which failed to win approval in January's lame-duck legislative session, is designed to pay down the state's massive backlog of unpaid bills that now stands at more than $6 billion.

On Friday, Quinn called the borrowing a plan a "debt restructuring plan," comparing it to a homeowner who refinances a mortgage to get a lower interest rate and uses the savings to pay off other debt.

"My job is to erase that deficit," Quinn said. "You can't just have people wringing their hands."

Weems said the borrowing plan, which Quinn hopes to have in place by Easter, would keep state vendors from discontinuing their services for everything from providing bathroom tissue for the state's prisons to offering social service programs for poor children. Vendors, he said, "don't want to enter into contracts with the state."

State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, and some other Democrats say borrowing is a key element of any financial fix.

"I think we need to pay off our bills," said Verschoore.

But Republican votes will be needed for passage and but most GOP lawmakers surveyed last week suggested they will not support the concept without seeing some major reductions in state programs.

"We can't spend more money than we did last year. We need to see cuts in the budget. The families of Illinois have made sacrifices and the state of Illinois needs to do the same with their budget," said state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who lost to Quinn in the 2010 election.

"I think it's time to have the governor realize that we're going to have to do with less state government, and it's time to make some cuts," added state Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga.

Verschoore said voters in his Quad-Cities-area district also want state government to tighten its belt.

"My constituents want to see some type of cuts," he said. "I don't think there is any agency that is going to be spared some pain."

Righter said Democrats who supported the tax increase said the money would be used to pay bills. That same rationale is being used to sell the borrowing idea, he said.

"Now the governor is telling us the borrowing, which will bring even more money than one full year of the tax increase, needs to happen so we can pay our bills," Righter said. "If they're going to use the borrowing to pay the bills, that means they're going to use the tax increase not to pay the bills like they said they would. They're going to use it on new spending, and that's not what my constituents want."


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