SPRINGFIELD - Area lawmakers said they were happy to hear Gov. Rod Blagojevich vow in his first budget address to veto any increase in sales or income taxes, but some said he may be relying too much on one-time fixes to cover increased spending from the state's main checking account.
?We cannot, should not, be having new programming right now,? said state Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa.
The governor's entire state budget as proposed is smaller than last year's budget, the first time that has happened since 1981, but general revenue spending would go up by more than $700 million and includes $88 million in new ideas Blagojevich proposed in his State of the State address last month.
?I was disappointed for the most part,? said state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. ?I'm not sure I understand how, with the state in the budget deficit that we are in, that we can turn around and increase general revenue fund spending by $715 million. And I think what we are doing is increasing spending funded by borrowed funds, and I'm a little concerned about where that's going to land us in three or four years.?
State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, said the governor seems to be relying very heavily on the sale of the dormant 10th riverboat license, which could be tied up in court for years, and on a $10 billion pension borrowing plan the Legislature approved, but which still needs State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka's signature. That plan is supposed to free up about $2 million in the state's main checking account.
Other one-time fixes include a transfer of excess money from other special state funds into the general revenue fund, a tax amnesty and the sale of the Toll Highway Authority Building and the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.
But budget director John Filan said most of the one-time fixes were to deal with one-time obligations, such as paying off some of the $1.8 billion in bills the state owes and paying overdue corporate income taxes carried over from this year's budget.
Blagojevich said there were also plenty of measures that would result in recurring savings, such as lowering headcount, consolidating parts of state government, ending a number of tax exemptions, increasing taxes on riverboat casinos and increasing dozens of fees.
State lawmakers said they had hoped the governor would be more specific about exactly which fees would go up, how much they would go up and who would be affected by that.
?I want to understand that,? Rutherford said. ?I mean yes, they may not be fees directly on the consumer, but the bottom line is if you raise any fee on any business it is eventually going to be passed on to the consumer, and I want it to be equitable, and I want it to be fair.?
Black said he felt the whole speech was ?a little short on details,? particularly when it came to fee increases.
However, Black and state Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, said they were happy to hear the governor say he would catch up on the state's overdue bills owed to nursing homes, pharmacies, hospitals and other vendors.
?Right now we are very seriously behind in paying our bills,? Winkel said.
Other good news came in learning that the governor plans to leave the sales tax exemption on farm machinery, seeds, chemicals, fertilizer and equipment intact. Eliminating the agricultural sales tax exemption could have cost farmers and agricultural businesses about $235 million.
?That was a very big issue in my area,? said state Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga.
Black said ending that exemption ?would have been an unmitigated disaster for agriculture.?
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, said she was happiest to hear that the governor had proposed a slight increase in pay for home care workers who aid developmentally disabled and elderly citizens, an increase in eligibility for need-based health insurance programs and that schools would get a $250 increase in the per-pupil funding level.
?This isn't the level that it needs to be, but it's a great start,? Jakobsson said.
However, the governor's plan to eliminate 24 separate grant funds for services such as gifted education and science literacy programs, and fold that $210 million into the general education fund, was greeted with some skepticism. The governor said the move would allow local districts to have more control over spending decisions, but a similar plan Gov. George Ryan floated last year was not well-received by legislators because it meant more money for some districts and less for others than the current system provides.
?Gov. Ryan merely suggested that that be done, and the dome almost came off the Capitol building,? Righter said. ?So, I assume there will be a similar reaction here.?
Winkel said although the governor presents a budget, it must be passed by the Legislature, and cautioned that a lot could change between this document and what the budget contains in its final form.
?There's a long time between now and the finish line,? he said.
You can reach Kate Clements at (217) 782-2486 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.