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Political Recap: Illinois Budget, Gaming Progress; Pension Treads Water

It's always good to be caught up on state politics. Here's an easy guide to what happened last week.

The Illinois General Assembly passed a budget — almost on time — Thursday, with the Senate ending about 1:30 a.m. Friday.

The budget spends $33.7 billion for the 2013 general fund — the result of months of negotiations, hearings and a dizzying array of spending and appropriations bills with last-minute amendments upon amendments.

The budget, made up of several bills in the House and Senate, includes $6.5 billion for K-12 education, $1.9 billion for higher education, $5 billion for health and human services, and $1.6 billion for public safety.

In a testament to how Springfield does math, Democrats say the budget represents a spending reduction; Republicans say the opposite.

“Two years in a row, spending is going up,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine.

The budget makes a $700 million reduction in discretionary spending, with $16.4 billion compared to last year’s $17.1 billion. But it spends $33.7 billion in total, compared to last year’s roughly $33.2 billion.

The state is paying more into the public pension system, spending $5.2 billion this fiscal year, compared to $4.1 billion last year.

The $6.5 billion K-12 education appropriations bill — reduced by $161 million compared to last year — was among the most controversial votes, with some urban Democrats voting against the plan.

“We put a whole a lot of burden on the local school districts and at the same time continuously underfunded them,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, who voted against the bill.

“Maybe some members did not get the memo that we don’t have any money,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge. “We are out of money.”

Another controversial issue was whether to fund several antiquated and expensive state-run facilities, which Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn wants to close. The budget passed by the House and Senate includes funding for several centers for developmentally disabled people and several prisons — although the governor still has the power to close them, and said he likely would.

“Our intent is to give the governor that option,” said Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago.

Gaming Expansion

In addition to the budget, lawmakers found time to bet that expanding gaming would increase state revenue and grow the state’s economy.

Despite opposition from Quinn, in a 30-26 vote the Senate passed legislation that adds five casinos to the state and allows slot machines at horse racing tracks. Illinois has 10 casinos and six race tracks.

Senate Bill 1849 brings casinos to Chicago, Rockford, Lake County, Danville and Chicago’s south suburbs. It also allows any of the state’s existing horse racing tracks to offer slot machines.

The measure could produce at least $300 million in tax revenue for the state annually, but the amount could be higher, said bill sponsor Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills.

Some opponents say the state has reached a saturation point in regard to gaming, while others were against it for ethical reasons, including Quinn. He wants to see more oversight at the Chicago casino and a ban on campaign contributions from gaming interests.

Both chambers will have to gather more support to override the governor’s potential veto. The House passed the bill earlier in May with 69 votes, two votes away of a veto-proof or three-fifths majority. The Senate needs six more votes.

Punting on Pensions

After months of negotiations that culminated in one frustrated Republican comparing his fight for pension reform to Moses, lawmakers could not agree on a solution to the state's $83 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities.

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State Representative Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, threw a stack of paper in the air and attempted to punch it Tuesday, shouting, "I'm sick of it. … I feel like somebody trying to be released from Egypt. Let my people go."

That issue will be the subject of a special legislative session with the governor in June.

House Democrats had previously proposed a pension reform bill that would shift the costs of teachers' pensions to local governments — an idea that ultimately died, after criticism, mostly from Republicans who said it would force local governments to raise property taxes.

In a symbolic move, on Thursday the Senate passed a version of that pension bill, but without the cost shift and only for retired lawmakers and state workers, not teachers. It would give the option of choosing either state-covered health insurance upon retirement or keeping a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

No dates for the pension talks have been set, and it’s not clear how long they might last. With that uncertainty, some lawmakers were grumbling that they weren’t sure how much of their wardrobe to take home this weekend.

If the governor calls the special session, General Assembly members will be able to collect $132 a day per diem, on top of a salary of $67,836. If the House speaker and Senate president call the session, lawmakers do not get the per diem.

— Anthony Brino and Stephanie Fryer

Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.

 

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