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Gov. Quinn says $35.6 billion proposal ‘most difficult budget . . . ever’

Gov. PQuinn addresses State Legislature Wednesday his annual budget address.

Gov. Pat Quinn addresses the State Legislature on Wednesday in his annual budget address.

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Updated: April 8, 2013 7:40AM

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn called the $35.6 billion spending plan he dropped on a stone-sober General Assembly Wednesday “the most difficult budget I have ever submitted.”

If nothing else, the lack of applause lines proved the governor’s point as he embarks on what likely will be the most trying spring of his governorship.

The chilly reception he got Wednesday was as much a reflection of Quinn’s design to short public schools and universities by $400 million next year as much as it was his repeated finger-wagging at state lawmakers for not fixing Illinois’ $96 billion pension crisis despite his repeated demands.

“We all know that we must reform the Illinois public pension system,” Quinn told a joint session of the Legislature. “So, members of the General Assembly, what are you waiting for?”

“Illinois taxpayers are losing patience with your lack of action,” he continued. “If I could issue an executive order to resolve the pension crisis, I would. And I would have done it a long time ago, but democracy requires action by the executive branch and the legislative branch.

“It’s time for you to legislate,” he said.

The scolding added another layer on the Springfield blame game that has resulted in inertia when it comes to confronting the greatest financial pressure facing state government in anyone’s memory.

The governor’s proposed budget reflects a slight uptick in revenues and represents a 3-percent increase in spending over this year. But all of that new money and more gets siphoned away by the state’s runaway pension tab that he says is growing by $17 million a day.

With the state’s pension obligation at $6 billion in 2014, that total amounts to 19 percent of all state spending compared to just 6 percent of the state’s spending pie six years ago, he said.

In fact, while the Quinn administration forecasts $817 million in new revenues coming into state coffers during the budget year beginning July 1, all of that money and more — $929 million — will go toward paying for added pension costs.

Tying an indirect link to the need to reel in pensions, Quinn opened the door to gambling expansion as a way to help soften the pension-driven financial hit he foresees for schools but only if a package is “done right” and contains “no loopholes for mobsters,” a line that drew mocking laughter from within the chamber. Two days ago, the governor vetoed a gambling expansion measure.

Quinn’s budget speech, in some respects, sounded like last year’s speech, when he rang the alarm bell for pension reform only to be ignored during last spring’s legislative session.

The governor called lawmakers back to Springfield for a special session last August to deal with pensions but got the same result. The same inaction was seen during the fall veto session in November and December and during the lame-duck session in early January.

And so the fiscal pain in threatened cuts to education, cities and public transportation is “the direct result of the General Assembly’s lack of action on public pension reform,” Quinn said.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said she wasn’t personally offended by Quinn’s assertion that lawmakers wear the collar for pensions but acknowledged “many of my colleagues found it a bit over the top.”

“There weren’t very many applause lines,” Currie said when asked to account for the chilly reception Quinn got. “I think we applauded quite nicely in the end. But I don’t think anybody really wanted to jump up and down when he said, ‘Look we have this serious problem, and you haven’t solved it yet.’ That’s not an applause line. Not a cue. No cue card there that says, ‘On your feet, my dears.’”

The top Senate Republican, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), quickly rejected Quinn’s assertion that lawmakers are the ones to blame for no movement on pensions — and argued that the main impediment is Quinn himself.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Most of the activity has come out of the Legislature, and the House in particular. The governor is the one that has been woefully absent. The only thing he’s put out was last spring, five dot points. That is it. No legislation. Nothing.”

But House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) praised Quinn’s speech and predicted pension votes in his legislative chamber this spring, though the top House Democrat renewed his insistence that a comprehensive pension package include a requirement that suburban and Downstate school systems and universities foot the pension costs for their teaching staffs and administrators, rather than the state. That idea has been a non-starter for Republicans and a prime reason a pension deal has not taken flight.

“I think the governor did a very good job in his presentation today. He issued a very strong challenge for the Legislature. My expectation is the Legislature will be up for the challenge,” Madigan said during a post-speech interview on the public-television program, “Illinois Lawmakers.”

“We’ve discussed and debated the need for changes in Illinois’ pension systems for several years, and I think the time has arrived where we start voting on these questions, which we already have done in the House,” Madigan said. “So you may recall in the governor’s speech, he made a point of saying it’s time to vote. We voted last week. We’ll vote this week in the House on pension changes. The time has come.”

Madigan did not make clear if those “votes” would simply be more test votes on amendments or whether there actually would be a comprehensive package voted out of the chamber in the coming weeks, something that has yet to happen.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said he intends to seek a vote next week in his chamber on a pension package, Senate Bill 1, that combines earlier House and Senate pension-reform models into one bill.

But Cullerton said he doesn’t intend to go along with Quinn’s threatened cuts to education in next year’s budget, saying, “We should all consider this an unacceptable option and work to fully restore education funding.”

And his way of seeing that schools don’t get gouged is gambling expansion.

Cullerton-backed legislation that would add casinos in Chicago, the south suburbs and Lake County, permit slot machines at racetracks and Chicago’s airports and allow casinos to run Internet wagering was fast-tracked out of the Senate Executive Committee Wednesday, just hours after Quinn’s speech and two days after the governor vetoed a 2011 gambling expansion bill.

Under the Senate plan, which could see a Senate floor vote Thursday, up to $400 million annually would go from new wagering to schools, while at least $50 million generated by new Internet wagering would be earmarked for pensions.

The re-emergence of gambling expansion and it being intertwined both with Quinn’s pursuit of pension reform and a desire not to take money from schools only seemed to reinforce the governor’s point in his speech about this being perhaps the most difficult point in his governorship.

While quick to blame lawmakers’ inaction on pension reform, it’s obvious that he’s dependent on the Democratic super majorities in the House and Senate to hand him the trophy he has thus far been denied — with a likely 2014 re-election bid looming along with a need for a beefed-up resume.

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