Ill. Republicans want $5 billion in cuts to education, health care, pensions
BY STEPHEN DI BENEDETTO AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters March 17, 2011 1:10PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
SPRINGFIELD — To stave off more state borrowing and tax hikes, Senate Republicans Thursday called for $5 billion in state spending cuts that could hit education, health care programs for the poor and government pensions.
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) offered 15 votes from her caucus — half of what’s necessary to pass a bill in the Senate — to back a plan she said would create a budget surplus of $4 billion within four years without having to borrow or eventually make the temporary 67-percent income tax increase permanent.
“Nobody in this building ever thinks beyond a year or two,” Radogno told reporters at the Capitol. “Out of all the things that we’ve identified, we are willing to put half the votes on those. We are not just talking about cuts somebody needs to make somewhere. We are willing to actually vote on these cuts.”
In Washington, Gov. Quinn called the GOP counterproposal to his 2012 state spending plan “farfetched” and vowed not to take away human services funding that helps people keep jobs, such as daycare.
“We are not going to go backwards,” Quinn said after meeting with members of Illinois’ congressional delegation. “Those apostles of, you know, Draconian cuts, end up hurting your economic growth and jobs. I’m not listening to them.”
In Springfield, Republicans identified $6.7 billion in potential cuts from which to choose, including $1.3 billion in Medicaid cuts that would come by tightening eligibility for health-care programs such as All Kids and FamilyCare, which were both signature initiatives under impeached, ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The GOP also proposed cutting school spending by 10 percent — or $725 million. The group expressed openness to freezing state-aid payments to school districts, scaling back poverty grants and trimming increases Quinn favors on early-childhood programs.
Radogno expressed support for state pension givebacks from existing workers that she said could yield $1.35 billion in savings for the state. Among them are requiring current employees to pay more toward their pensions, imposing the same pension reforms that went into effect Jan. 1 on new hires to the current workforce and setting up a 401(k)-style retirement program to which the state would provide a 6-percent match.
Any of those changes would be sure to invite a legal challenge from public-employee unions that cite constitutional protections against the diminishment of pension benefits for current state workers.
“This is a problem you can’t be timid about and just say, ‘We can’t do this because of that. We can’t do this because of that,’ ” Radogno said. “Or the alternative is, again, we are in the financial abyss.”
Other cuts Radogno and her caucus sought took aim at the state prison system, including ending $7 million in compensation to inmates that they can use to purchase “candy, cigarettes and cable TV.”
They want to stop funding the Illinois Arts Council, which is chaired by Shirley Madigan, wife of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), because the cash-strapped agency has “essentially suspended” the awarding of grants to artists and art organizations yet continues to have a full-time staff.
Republicans also are after state-owned cell phones, blackberries and pagers. Cutting half of the 15,500 communication devices would save an estimated $2.3 million. Reducing take-home cars for state employees by half could also generate $9 million in savings.
“While these spending cuts are tough, I look more forward to where we are going to be if we have the courage to do it today and see a future that is far different from the recent past and present,” said Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine).
Whether the Senate Republican plan will gain any traction in the General Assembly remains to be seen. Radogno said her caucus is open to suggestions from anyone, including Democrats in both chambers.
“We are showing more of our hand than I think has been done in this building for a long time,” Radogno said. “But the stakes are so great that we have to do that, so I’m hopeful that they will be genuine.”
In a statement, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) did not address specifics of the Senate Republican plan but praised his political rivals for engaging in the state budget process.
“It’s nice to hear them say something other than, ‘No.’ Nevertheless, their efforts must go beyond more than press releases and photo ops. Releasing a list of possible cuts shouldn’t be the end of their participation in the budget process. I hope that this is just the beginning,’’ he said.