Democrats in the Illinois Senate on Tuesday introduced a plan that would allow special funds to be used to help plug part of a $1.6 billion budget hole, a proposal that Gov. Bruce Rauner's deputy chief of staff immediately rejected as a "half-baked" attempt at solving a problem.
The legislation, passed by an appropriations committee along party lines, would allow Rauner to use $580 million in special state funds established through the lobbying efforts of special interest groups over the years. The funds, drawn from state services and fees, are for specific purposes including roads and radiation protection.
The $580 million is roughly one-third of the revenue Rauner has said he's seeking access to, and the legislation stops short of providing the governor with the power to spend the money.
Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, an appropriations committee chairman, said the legislation "surgically addresses some significant challenges in the current fiscal year." It could be voted on by the full chamber later in the week.
But Republican Sen. Matt Murphy said Senate Democrats are "effectively going rogue" and breaking out of negotiations with the governor and other legislative leaders, who met on the issue for several hours Monday.
"This is an early test of the new governor (and) you're choosing to play politics," Murphy said.
At issue is the $35.7 billion budget lawmakers passed last spring that didn't allocate enough money for expenses, while a decision on extending Illinois' income tax increase went unaddressed partly because of the November election. The tax increase rolled back on Jan. 1, from 5 percent to 3.75 percent for individuals, and from 7 percent to 5.25 percent for corporations. That created the $1.6 billion hole.
Rauner is seeking expanded authority to move what he calls "nonessential" funds to make sure child care, prisons and court reporter programs don't run out of money in the coming weeks, but Democrats want more details on his budget plans. The child care program needs $300 million to operate through June. According to the governor's office, funds will run out for after-care programs at the Department of Juvenile Justice next month, and the state will run out of money for developmental centers and mental health facilities in May.
The idea of giving the governor more authority isn't new. Lawmakers passed lump sum budgets for agencies and gave Rauner's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, expanded authority the first two years of his first term.
But while Republicans decried the move at the time, Democrats had the advantage of controlling both the General Assembly and the governor's office. Now, Democratic leaders, particularly Senate President John Cullerton, are publicly showing less incentive to grant the governor's wishes, with both sides saying the other's inaction is putting vulnerable residents at risk.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown, said Madigan doesn't have a position on the Senate's legislation at this point. But Brown reiterated Madigan's statements that he believes this year's budget hole should be patched with a combination of special funds and reductions in spending.
"This is the exact type of short-term thinking that created this mess and it does not even solve the major crises that will occur at the end of this month," Rauner deputy chief of staff Mike Schrimpf said. "The people of Illinois deserve a comprehensive solution instead of another half-baked idea that will lead to yet another crisis in the immediate future."