Lawmakers prepare to pass budget, go home

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. They were also poised to consider a major construction program backed by expanded gambling throughout the state. The gambling plan would create three new casinos, allow existing casinos to expand and permit slot machines at race tracks.

The Senate approved the construction plan and its money pieces Saturday afternoon, putting pressure on the House to follow suit quickly.

House and Senate Democrats made clear that their $59.1 billion budget proposal, drafted without Republican help, would spend more money than the state will collect in the coming year.

That would force Gov. Rod Blagojevich to make spending cuts, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawmakers would then return later in the year to decide whether to accept those cuts.

"The executive department has authority to spend or not spend money," said House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. "Those are all his decisions."

The House started passing a budget Saturday afternoon, with the Senate hoping to do the same soon after.

"This is the best option that we have," said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield. "It's May 31st, it's time for us to pass this budget."

Republicans complained Democrats were skipping out on making tough budget decisions.

"You have taken this totally irresponsible approach to governing," said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. "Talk about failure, talk about reckless behavior."

Democratic legislators headed for an uneasy truce after a year of fighting among Blagojevich, Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones that caused a record-long overtime session last year.

They decided approving a budget -- even one patched together with possibly big holes -- was better than another summer of fighting, particularly in an election year.

The proposal would increase spending in the budget year starting July 1 by about $2.1 billion. That's a compromise between the amounts that House and Senate Democrats had proposed in competing plans last week.

Much of the new money would go to education and human services.

Schools would see an increase of more than $500 million, with some of that going to two dozen schools who have waited several years for construction money. The base foundation level of money schools receive from the state would increase by about $225 per student.

Mental health, community care, aging and other human services programs would get millions more. Universities would see an increase of 2.8 percent.

But with the increased spending comes a major problem: how to pay for it.

Lawmakers estimate tax revenue will grow by about $1 billion, which some say is generous considering the increasingly shaky economy.

It also assumes approval of several new revenue measures that may not win legislative approval. They include refinancing some pension debt to lower costs, selling off a long-dormant casino license and siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from special funds.

If those measures fail, the budget would be left deep in the red. House Republicans estimated it could be up to $2.5 billion out of balance.

Budget negotiators said Blagojevich has authority to respond to that imbalance by moving money around and making cuts, but they were coy about how much slashing he would have to do.

"We don't know what's going to happen, and that's why we can make those adjustments as we go through the process," said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago.

This would put Blagojevich in the position of playing the bad guy and deciding which interest groups have their state funds cut -- a pleasant picture for many lawmakers who have feuded with the governor.

Republicans said Democrats should be ashamed for considering an out-of-whack budget and said it was evidence of what happens when the governor and legislative leaders from both parties fail to work together on a budget everyone can live with.

"There's always a better chance if you sit down and work through it," Cross said.

After lawmakers ignored the new spending ideas he proposed earlier in the year, Blagojevich stayed out of the budget discussions. He instead focused on getting a $34 billion capital construction program approved by Saturday.

The Senate approved the program for road, school and other government construction projects, along with two pieces for paying for it. One would privatize the state Lottery, while the other would massively expand gambling by adding three new riverboat casinos and putting thousands of slot machines at horse tracks and casinos.

Lawmakers have bickered over a capital plan for several years, but senators showed a rare sign of unity Saturday.

Senate Republicans and Democrats hoped bipartisan support for the plan would persuade the House to approve it despite serious doubts that would happen Saturday.

"Sometimes, we've just got to lay our differences aside and do what's right for the people of this state," said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville.

The construction bills are HB2651, HB1496 and HB6339.

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