Last year state budget cuts to education affected programs but, for the most part, stayed out of the classroom. The federal government sent the state stimulus money, aka "budget stabilization" funds, and the state government used that to plug holes.
"Dec. 31, all the federal stimulus money stops," said state Rep. Frank Mautino.
The Spring Valley Democrat and other legislators are preparing to go back to Springfield next week for a three-day fall veto session, and this week Mautino was at an Earlville school board meeting to talk about difficulties on their way in the new calendar year.
He said the General Assembly will do all it can to try not to cut core education funding, just like it will try not to make cuts that would result in someone's grandmother no longer being able to receive oxygen deliveries.
But can the state stave off a negative financial impact to classrooms?
"It's going to be very difficult to do that," Mautino said this week.
Still, legislators will try not to do harm.
Mautino and colleague state Sen. Gary Dahl (R-Granville) both say departments' budgets need to be scrutinized, and revenue sources need to be developed or renewed.
But neither thinks much new revenue will be found during the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday session next week. Mautino notes Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed income tax increase will not come up for a vote until after the Feb. 2 primary elections, because Chicago-area incumbents won't approve any additional tax after the state passed a higher sales tax for the Chicago Transit Authority. Compounding that resistance to more taxes is the CookCounty Board's approval of more sales taxes that give Chicago the highest sales taxes in the nation, Mautino said.
Mautino said the state also tends to outgrow its income tax rate "every 10, 12 years."
"The primary for the Democrats in Chicago is the main election. If any of them have any opponent, it's going to be in the primary," Dahl said.
Dahl tires of the political status quo in Illinois: "It's not about the next generation, it is about the next election. And until enough people in Illinois stand up and say enough's enough, it's not going to change. We've got to change the system."
Next week's session is likely to include giving the governor ability to transfer money as needed, finishing member bills such as an extension of the life of a Mendota Tax Increment Finance district, a child support bill and correction of language. One correction comes in a budget bill that listed the village of Granville as Grandview and resulted in it not receiving funds needed for sewer separation, Mautino said.
"I think all members whether you're a Democrat or Republican realize the amount of trouble that lies ahead, just keeping things running, and that takes away a lot of the petty arguments," Mautino said.
Programs such as school textbook loan programs that were zeroed out last year aren't likely to come back, Mautino said.
For a change, there's some money for school construction, but most of it is spoken for. Mautino said the last project built and paid for through a school construction program was Streator High School, in 2002. More than 30 projects approved and not funded by the state would be in line for possible reimbursement, and districts with schools destroyed by flooding, such as Central School in Ottawa, would be next in line.
The state will start out in a $900 million budget hole due to costs unanticipated in the last budget. Mautino said lawmakers will look through department budgets for $1 billion in cuts and will try to get $1 billion out of savings from the Medicaid program.
He said the greatest need is restructuring of state and taxpayer-funded pensions, which have become a crushing burden for the state. He says teachers' and state workers' unions have shown willingness to accept changes.
He said the recession some are calling The Great Recession has led to a 13-percent decline in sales tax revenue and 10.5 percent unemployment statewide (higher in the Illinois Valley), and it will take Illinois longer than usual to emerge from this recession. In addition, in past recessions that had less severe challenges for many people, Illinois's recovery generally has lagged nine months behind other states'.
"There will be probably two more very difficult years. It's going to take awhile for this recovery, longer than ones in the past," Mautino said.
Common sense needed
Dahl says the Republicans have suggested a tax amnesty day estimated to generate $100 million to $105 million in back tax payments with interest forgiven. Mautino told the Earlville School Board this week an amnesty day could help generate half of the $200 million spent this month to restore grants for low-income college students.
"We're going to have to rob from Peter to pay Paul to pay for these (programs)," Dahl said.
Dahl said everyone knew the college student assistance program would be restored to keep students in state universities in the winter semester. However, he questions why Quinn spent time and money flying around Illinois, campaigning for the grants and "stirring up students who already were stirred up," rather than staying in Springfield to look for a revenue source or a way to pay for the grants.
Most revenue ideas so far simply "throw a Band-Aid on something that needs a longer-term fix." He mentioned one option may be restoration of sales taxes on certain types of items - taxes forgiven in the Gov. Jim Thompson administration when across-the-board sales taxes generated a surplus. He also said graduated state income tax instead of Illinois' flat tax might help.
Dahl says the state needs to have more common sense.
"We need to do some serious study and figure out the common-sense way to make cuts," Dahl said, noting some legislators need to just look at their own districts.
"How many agencies do we have out there that have multiple levels of management that could be under one umbrella? How many budgets don't have a line item to buy a new piece of equipment, so they rent instead.?" Dahl said.
He said he thought it was stupid when he saw a crew of five - "obviously on overtime" - along the south side of the Illinois River bridge at Spring Valley at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night from Illinois Department of Transportation using a rented John Deere implement with an arm for mowing ditches.
He figures why rent a piece of equipment if the state could own it and move it around as needed?
In La Salle County, Dahl asks, how many buildings of office space does the state lease when it probably could consolidate into buildings not being used around the area?
He told a story about a state office in Kankakee. In a one-story building, someone decided to put in an elevator to put records in the basement.
"Then somebody comes along and said it's got to be handicapped accessible. You know what they did? They put another elevator in; they have two elevators in a one-story building going into the basement," Dahl said.
"We've got to work smarter rather than to work harder."
Moffitt: Income tax hike would be â€˜last resort'
Mautino says the legislators are far more trusting of Quinn than other governors, and otherwise would not consider allowing him to borrow from certain funds to plug holes in others.
State Rep. Don Moffitt (R-Galesburg) has concerns about that, however. He said if it really is borrowing from funds and the money would have to be paid back from one fund to another, how is that going to happen in a state that is having enormous difficulty even paying its bills. He would want to have answers about whether it's "borrowing" or a fund "sweep" before approving "borrowing."
He said he hopes the General Assembly can assure schools they will receive their general school aid payments in a timely manner.
He said he doesn't think budget cuts alone can solve the problem, noting the two big revenue generators - sales tax and state income tax - keep declining.
Moffitt said he never thought an income tax increase during a recession would be a good thing, but "regardless of what your views are," the state has to pay its bills.
"I'd have to see it as an absolute last resort. I think it would have to have a two- or three-year sunset on it. â€¦ It forces some accountability if it has a sunset on it," Moffitt said.
"I just want there to be plenty of public discussion and it would be nice if we could solve it by just making some cuts, but people have to understand, some pretty important things could be cut," Moffitt said.
Moffitt added he has concerns about the governor's proposal to have early release of prisoners, but he knows costs have to be cut. "If we start missing school aid payments, the ramifications of that are serious."