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Senate Democrats issue own budget plan

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SPRINGFIELD — With 13 days left in the regular spring session, the Illinois Senate Democrats rolled out a budget that relies on facility closures, layoffs and 4-percent spending cuts for most state agencies.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — With 13 days left in the regular spring session, the Illinois Senate Democrats rolled out a budget that relies on facility closures, layoffs and 4-percent spending cuts for most state agencies.

Still, the budget outline spends $16.9 billion on day-to-day state services such as the Illinois State Police, elementary and secondary education and Medicaid — about $600 million more than what the House is budgeting.

The budget is contingent on Medicaid savings of $2.7 billion, including a cigarette tax increase of a $1 per pack, which Gov. Pat Quinn asked for during his budget address in February. The cigarette tax would go from $.98 to $1.98 a pack under Quinn's proposal.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said the Senate is close to agreeing on how to get the $2.7 billion in savings. Legislation dealing with Medicaid savings could be introduced as early as next week.

Quinn and others have called for constraining spending on Medicaid as the health care system's costs have skyrocketed. The state's overdue Medicaid bills are projected to hit $21 billion by 2017, if nothing is done.

Senate Democrats and Quinn can agree on finding savings in closing state facilities, but whether they agree on which facilities to close is still unknown, however. That's still being debated, Steans said.

"Nearly every agency is looking at cuts. That's unavoidable," said state Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville.

The only areas of state government the Democrats' budget doesn't cut to some degree are elementary and secondary education. That spending is held flat compared to last year.

Despite cuts to most areas of state government, the Democrats' budget actually spends more than a revenue projection of $33.7, which the General Assembly came to by using a tactic called fund sweeps.

Fund sweeps works by taking unspent money in dedicated funds — such as the Cycle Rider Safety Training Fund, which is supposed to support classes on motorcycle safety — and using it for general spending. The Senate Democrats would use about $400 million in fund sweeps to pay down some of the state's $8.5 billion overdue bills.

"There's $8 billion sitting in multiple piggy banks, 500 piggy banks, at one time. We're hoarding money in these little banks," state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said at a news conference Friday.

Sullivan said the sweep would be a one-time expenditure to chip away at the mountain of overdue bills.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, criticized the Democrats' budget for spending more than the revenue projection of $33.7 billion. He said the Dems' budget doesn't have enough cuts in spending to ensure the Legislature wouldn't vote to extend the income tax increase of 2011. It's set to expire in 2014.

Murphy said the Senate Republicans wanted a budget based on revenue figures that don't include the extra money the state is getting from the tax increase.

"My hope is this is just an opening salvo," Murphy said. "This will not get us on the path to reducing the tax increase. It will put us on the path, frankly, for needing another."

Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said the Democrats' budget is a good starting point, reflecting many of the governor's ideas.

The Democrats said their budget could be introduced in legislative form as early as Monday.

Senate Democrats said Friday's rollout wasn't an attempt to jump in front of the House, which, last year, released its version of the budget first. That left the Senate scrambling to play catchup, and eventually settling on what was mostly a House-crafted budget.

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