Blagojevich Seeks New Power to Address Budget Problems

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Tuesday he wants authority to cut spending, including education money, as the state faces a budget deficit that could reach $2 billion.

The Democratic governor is asking lawmakers to let him make 8 percent cuts in a wide array of government programs, from schools to pensions to revenue-sharing with local governments. The total savings would be $2.2 billion, aides said.

But his "Emergency Budget Act" is likely to get a skeptical reaction from lawmakers, few of whom trust Blagojevich. In the past, they've overturned other cuts he has tried to make and balked at giving him blanket authority over spending.

What's more, Blagojevich is raising the idea in the second half of the Legislature's fall session, giving them little time to review it and make a decision.

The governor's budget director, Ginger Ostro, acknowledged the administration hadn't discussed the concept with lawmakers before unveiling it in a press release. "We have not had that conversation," Ostro said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Legislators showed no desire Tuesday to join Blagojevich in making potentially unpopular choices about where to cut. Both Democrats and Republicans said Blagojevich already has all the authority he needs to reduce spending.

"It's his blueprint and his job to manage the budget. What he needs to do is come up with a plan," said Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont, top budget expert for Senate Republicans.

Blagojevich did just that earlier in the year with a series of cuts, and lawmakers voted to restore spending for state parks and historic sites. Blagojevich still hasn't decided whether to go along with the restoration or veto it.

Blagojevich won't be in Springfield when legislators begin meeting Wednesday. He's in California for a conference on climate change and won't visit Springfield until Thursday, aides said.

The General Assembly approved a budget in May that was far from balanced. Blagojevich estimated it was $2.1 billion in the red, and used his veto powers to cut spending by $1.4 billion.

That left a gap of $700 million. Revenues from taxes and gambling have continued to fall, however, and expenses are rising. The administration now says this year's budget could have a $2 billion hole.

That's not counting the billions of dollars in overdue bills the state has allowed to pile up.

"Like a family who has seen their income cut dramatically, we need to take fiscally responsible action to ensure the state can pay all of our bills and provide the core services that Illinoisans need," Blagojevich said in a statement.

The Emergency Budget Act would let Blagojevich and other constitutional officers hold back up to 8 percent of the money budgeted for state agencies.

If he took the full 8 percent out of education, schools would lose about $600 million. Education got a $300 million increase in the existing budget.

Rep. Gary Hannig, the top budget expert for House Democrats, noted that schools would have to absorb a major budget cut nearly halfway through the school year.

Hannig said lawmakers recognize the budget problems are serious and will listen to any ideas from the governor. But he noted the fall session is almost over and lawmakers haven't seen Blagojevich's proposal, which the governor's office said was filed Tuesday in the Senate.

"We didn't have any advance notice. We didn't get any input. We didn't have a chance to ask any questions," Hannig said. "Right now it's just a press release."

Blagojevich's proposal to cut state aid to schools, universities and local governments would trigger "a real firestorm of debate," said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

Blagojevich also said he's working with the comptroller and treasurer on a short-term borrowing plan that could pay off some overdue Medicaid bills.

He is asking the federal government to increase the amount of matching funds it sends to Illinois for Medicaid and to pump money into programs that will encourage consumer spending.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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