Thursday's vote in the Senate to fix the state budget must have been painful for some Republican lawmakers.

Although the GOP remains firmly in the minority party in the upper chamber, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's presence on the scene means they now have some leverage when it comes time to cutting deals.

That's both empowering and politically treacherous.

The deal on the table Thursday forced the GOP lawmakers to reverse course on one of their longest running issues — protecting the state road fund.

It wasn't that long ago that Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno signed her name to a letter complaining about Democratic attempts to take money out of the road fund to use it for other purposes.

Yet, there she was on Thursday voting "yes."

Then there was state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who successfully lobbied Democrats three years to support his call for an audit of the road fund.

The audit showed that half of the money that's supposed to rebuild roads — money that creates jobs and provides for public safety — was being swept away to other areas by the Democrats who controlled state government.

Brady compared the diversion to "stealing."

Flash forward to Thursday. Brady sided with Rauner and pushed his green button.

"This may not have been perfect, but I applaud Democrats for working with Republicans and the governor to get this job done," Brady said afterwards.

After voting "no" on budgets for years as a member of the minority caucus, it was amusing to hear state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, complain about the lack of "yes" votes coming from the Democrats on Thursday.

"It was disappointing to see how many people on the Democrat side who voted for last year's budget that created the deficit, now would not take part in the solution. But, they have to answer to their constituents," Righter said.

It was surprising that Righter's green "yes" button still worked.

School worries

The budget fix also takes money from another sacred cow in state government — education.

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Under the plan, spending on general state aid to schools would be slashed by $150 million in the final three months of the fiscal year.

The plan does give Rauner access to a $97 million slush fund to dole out to schools who are having trouble making it to the end of the year.

But, there are no guidelines for how that money can be spent.

That has some downstate lawmakers worried the whole thing was designed to allow Rauner to simply funnel the money to Chicago public schools.

According to a spreadsheet I obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education, Chicago is on pace to run short of funds before the fiscal year ends, meaning it could potentially qualify for some of the money.

At this point, however, no one knows — or no one is saying — exactly what parameters will be used to determine how the $97 million will be distributed.

"We're still reviewing the legislation," said ISBE spokesman Matt Vanover.

Spring break

In the end, fixing the current year's budget was just the first move in the political chess game between Rauner and Democrats.

By approving the changes before leaving town for a two-week spring recess, the Legislature put to rest concerns about a child care subsidy program that was running out of money, as well as the possibility that some state agencies would run out of money to pay employees in the coming weeks.

With those issues now off the table, lawmakers can turn their attention to next year's budget, which will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 billion short of the current spending plan.

Rauner has presented a budget that, on paper, closes that gap without raising taxes.

But, it relies on changes to state worker retirement plans that are not only unlikely to be embraced by the Democratic majorities, but would surely be challenged in court by labor unions.

Without those pension changes, Rauner's budget is $2.2 billion out of whack.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said that will be a major stumbling block going forward.

"The fundamental problem with fiscal year '16 is the governor has to present a balanced budget. He hasn't done that," Cullerton told reporters Thursday. "We need to know what extra revenues he is going to propose. We're waiting to hear what the governor's plans are to balance his own budget."

Follow Kurt Erickson on Twitter @Illinois_Stage.


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