Illinois' proposed budget is "the most difficult budget I have ever submitted to you," a somber Gov. Pat Quinn told lawmakers last week.
In briefings with reporters, published budget narratives and in his address to lawmakers, Quinn and administration officials stressed that it is a painful budget with limited spending, new economies and even cuts to K-12 education and higher education.
"If you are suggesting that we didn't go through great agony thinking about the pain that is going to be experienced in school district after school district, that is not the case. This is an extremely painful presentation that we're making," Quinn's budget director, Jerry Stermer, said of the $308 million general funds cut to K-12 education.
"This is a difficult budget. It holds the line on spending, reflects the state's fiscal challenges," added Jack Lavin, the governor's chief of staff.
But Republicans in the state Senate aren't buying it. They say that with Quinn's budget, the number of state employees would increase, spending would be up and that little progress would be made on paying down Illinois' estimated $9 billion backlog of bills.
"It's a continued recipe for disaster," said Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, who is one of at least five Republicans interested in Quinn's job. "The governor, even after a 67 percent income tax increase, has $1.6 billion more in backlogged bills today than when they passed that massive income tax increase. And no matter how much the governor massages our economic development numbers, there are 300,000 fewer people working in Illinois today than when he was sworn into office, and that is pathetic."
"He's in there telling everyone they're cutting," said Sen. Matt Murphy, of Palatine, another Republican with ambitions beyond the state Senate. "They're not cutting. And over a two-year period, hiring is up over 2,800 with this proposal."
Some of their complaints are political rhetoric fueled by a desire for higher office, but the budget numbers support the claims of growth in employee headcount.
Stermer, in a budget briefing, cited a slimmed-down employee headcount in those agencies under the governor's control (not including, for example, university employees).
"We're looking at a workforce right today of less than 50,000 people," Stermer said, adding that the proposed budget calls for increased hiring so that "headcount would be back at the level that was intended for this fiscal year, around 52,000."
Because of a wave of state employee retirements in the last two years — a total of 7,113, including 4,360 last year — the number of state employees dropped below 50,000 in December 2012.
But the budget's fine print projects an employee headcount of 53,172 next year. That's virtually the same level as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's last budget in fiscal year 2009.
This year's estimated headcount will increase to 52,257, and next year's will grow by another 900.
While it's quite a drop from the employee headcount of 69,970 in fiscal year 2001, Republicans note it's hardly the sign of austerity.
Under Quinn's budget, staffing would be up at almost every department and agency next year. Compared with actual headcounts in fiscal year 2012, it would be up by 42 employees at the Department of Aging, 15 at the Department of Agriculture, 83 at Central Management Services, 17 at Commerce and Economic Opportunity, 231 at the Department of Natural Resources, 182 at the Department of Corrections (including three more positions at the Danville Correctional Center), 904 at the Department of Human Services, 88 at the Department of Insurance, 30 at the lottery department, 384 at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, 294 at the Department of Revenue, 197 at the Illinois State Police, 147 at the Department of Transportation, 29 at the Environmental Protection Agency, and 60 at the State Board of Education.
The new positions at the revenue department include 75 auditors who, Stermer said, would "enhance enforcement of our existing revenue laws." For every dollar invested, he said, the state will collect $8.
Other proposed new hires, he said, are to replace those who have left state government, or to cut down on overtime costs.
"In fact we're looking at the problems with the state police and corrections of overtime, which costs taxpayers more," Stermer said. "The same in the department of human services, where we have backlogs of eligibility determinations for Medicaid, which is not where we want to be."
"We're looking to stabilize the staff and make sure we do what's needed to be done and not incur larger bills," Stermer said.
As for the other issues cited by the Republicans — increased spending and a failure to reduce the huge backlog of bills — the evidence is mixed.
Spending is up, but all of the money is going to pensions under a payment system approved by the Legislature almost 20 years ago.
"The $929 million required increase in pension contributions in 2014 will completely absorb all projected growth in tax revenue for the fiscal year," says the budget book.
And the administration claims that the state will put another $700 million into reducing its backlog of bills so that by June 30, 2014, the total owed will be $7.5 billion.
And the backlog could be reduced faster, Quinn said, by closing some corporate tax loopholes.
Republicans fired back that deeper budget cuts should be used to cut into the backlog.
"The only way to do this is to spend less money then we have coming in and begin to pay the bills off," said Sen. Christine Radogno, the Senate minority leader.
Prussing's re-election fund. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing last week loaned $8,000 to her campaign re-election fund.
In 2009, at virtually the same time in the election cycle, Prussing reported a $5,000 personal loan to her campaign, along with a $5,000 contribution from her husband, John.
In that mayoral race, Prussing ended up spending $16,122, including a partial repayment of about $1,121 of the loan to herself.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.