SPRINGFIELD - State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, said his decision to vote for Gov. Rod Blagojevich's controversial pension bond proposal came after assurances that the University of Illinois would be able to maintain control over much of its finances and to escape at least some proposed budget cuts.
The bill would allow the governor to borrow $10 billion to meet current and future pension obligations, freeing up $2 billion in the state's main checking account now and counting on investment proceeds from the rest to pay back the loan when it comes due.
Since interest rates are at a historic low, the governor believes he will be able to make more from investing the $8 billion than it costs to repay the $10 billion, but critics call it a very risky proposition.
Winkel is the first Senate Republican to agree to vote for the bill, which has passed the House and now needs a three-fifths majority in the Senate.
Until Tuesday, Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, and his caucus had presented a united front against the bill, saying they wanted to know what specific plans the governor had for spending the cash freed up by the bond sale.
?Obviously, Senator Watson understands that every legislator has to cast votes based on what he or she feels is best for their district,? said Watson's spokeswoman, Patty Schuh. ?I think what Senator Watson particularly finds disturbing, though, is the governor's tactics. To threaten funding for the state's flagship university is politics at its worst. It's politics as usual.?
If the governor is able to capture all of the Senate Democratic votes, plus the one Independent who votes with the Democrats, he will need only Winkel and two other Republicans to pass the measure.
Winkel said his decision to vote yes followed several days of discussions with the governor's office regarding the state's relationship with the UI.
?We discussed all the areas in specific detail, including legislation and dollar amounts,? Winkel said, although he refused to reveal the exact nature of the commitments that were made.
Blagojevich's office was equally circumspect, but did confirm that the administration had agreed to accept some of Winkel's suggestions involving the UI, including reduced budget cuts.
?I'm very satisfied that the governor is committed to enhancing the university as an asset to the state,? Winkel said. ?I'm very encouraged by our discussions on these very specific points: income fund retention, line-item budgeting, control and accountability, as well as the concept of tuition caps.?
Blagojevich has been pushing legislation that would give the government control over the universities' tuition and income funds and another bill that would require detailed line-item budgeting of state funds for universities.
The latter could potentially allow the governor to delete funding for individual jobs or programs in the budget before signing off on a university's spending plan.
The UI is not in favor of either bill.
University spokesman Tom Hardy said he was not aware of any deal and could not provide details of concessions apparently granted to the UI for Winkel's vote.
?I don't know,? Hardy said. ?This is all new information to me.?
Winkel said he believes the General Assembly has three options: take a chance on the governor's plan, institute severe budget cuts across state government, including higher education, or raise taxes.
?This proposal is designed to fill about 40 percent of the budget hole, and I've not heard other alternatives that could do that,? he said. ?We should let the governor have a chance on his plan.?
State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, said the governor's office had not contacted him regarding the bond plan and had not offered reductions in cuts to Eastern Illinois University, or any other incentives to vote for the bill.
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