Quinn's budget proposal draws fire
Ill. Budget

Quinn's budget proposal draws fire

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Republicans are crediting Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for a budget speech Wednesday that recognizes Illinois' intractable financial crisis. But they say his call for massive cuts to the state's crushing Medicaid and pension costs are too vague, and too late.

"It was a speech we probably should have heard three or four years ago," said Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego.

Some Democrats, social advocates and labor leaders, meanwhile, were quick to slam the proposed cuts, specific or not.

"How do you say, `We're not going to provide pharmacy benefits (under Medicaid) anymore'?" asked Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, picking one hypothetical cut that could eventually be on the table under Quinn's blanket call for Medicaid reform. "How do you handle it when the emergency rooms fill up because people didn't have their prescriptions?"

Quinn's rock-and-a-hard-place budget calls for spending $33.8 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1. That's about $500 million higher than the current fiscal year, which the administration says is due to a billion-dollar increase in the state's required payment to the underfunded pension system. Most of the remaining parts of the budget, Quinn says, would be cut, in some cases severely.

"This budget contains truths that may not be what you want to hear," Quinn told a joint session of the Legislature gathered in Springfield for his fourth annual budget speech Wednesday. "But these are truths that you do need to know. And I believe you can handle the truth."

Illinois has struggled under massive budget deficits for years, prompting last year's 67 percent income tax hike. Even at that, the state still has a $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills that has driven some state contractors out of business because of late payments. That's in addition to an estimated $83 billion long-term deficit in its state employee pension plan due to chronic underfunding by the Legislature in tight budget years of the past.

"Today, our rendezvous with reality has arrived," Quinn said.

His plan would close two prisons — including the Tamms 'supermax" prison in deep Southern Illinois — shutter dozens of other state facilities and offices, cut most state agencies by 9 percent and offer a minimal 1 percent increase to the state's struggling schools.

He also called for the Legislature to work with him on finding substantial savings in three key areas: pension costs, Medicaid costs and corporate "tax loopholes" that he said could be closed. But he specifically identified just one tax loophole, having to do with offshore oil rigs. And the pension and Medicaid savings ideas, he said, would grow from two bipartisan "working groups" of legislators.

Quinn has hinted recently that he believes local school districts should carry their own employee pension costs instead of having the state pay them, a move critics say would just drive up local property taxes as the schools look for a way to pay. He has suggested that Medicaid cuts could potentially include both stricter policies that would shorten the list of 2.7 million recipients, and reduce payments to medical providers.

Quinn said the working group on Medicaid reform needed to come up with solutions this session. "Don't plan on going home for the summer until we get this job done," he told lawmakers.

The administration's recent hints about how those Medicaid and pension savings might be realized has already drawn some predictable battle lines. The suggestion of making local school districts take over their own pension costs, for example, prompted a news conference from Republican legislators who warned that such a plan would spur local property tax increases as the school districts struggle to cover those costs.

Quinn's plans to shutter Tamms supermax prison in deep Southern Illinois and other downstate facilities are drawing ire from Republicans and Democrats downstate.

"Almost all of the facilities the governor wants to close are in downstate Illinois," Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said in a written statement. "I'm mad as hell. Illinois is one state, not Chicago and everybody else."

The governor's budget presentation is the first step in a process that generally involves negotiations between both parties in both chambers, with compromise budget legislation emerging later in the spring.

Brianna Ehley of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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