© 2023 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Wake Up! Donate $91.90+ to the Year-End Drive and receive the 2023 Murrow Mug. Support continued journalism.
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Ends and Means: A thoughtful voter might conclude there's some truth on all sides of budget debate

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues
"This spending plan reflects our values. This spending plan responds to working families ... [and the] unfortunate in our state." Sen. Jeffrey M. Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat. "This is a fiscal fiasco that is staring the taxpayers in the face. What we have is a champagne and caviar budget when we can't afford it." Rep. Dave Winters, a Shirland Republican. "We found just the right level of funding to make this budget work." Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat.

By Election Day, Illinoisans will have heard countless variations on those themes, as candidates depict through partisan spectacles the state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Looking beyond the glitzy 30-second campaign spots, a thoughtful voter might conclude there's some truth on all sides.

Certainly, the $56.8 billion fiscal blueprint Democrats sent to Gov. Rod Blagojevich early last month — without any Republican votes — includes a bevy of showcase programs intended to boost him to a second term and bolster the fortunes of his legislative party mates.

But Republican criticism is on target, too, especially the GOP complaint that the new programs are funded largely by ignoring current bills, to the tune of almost $3 billion in pensions and Medicaid obligations, with grievous consequences for the future.

Consider, for example, state funding for elementary and secondary education, where the new budget would increase grants to local school districts by $417 million, according to the State Board of Education.

Included is a $170 increase, to $5,334, in the foundation level, the guaranteed amount available in state and local resources for each student. Lawmakers also earmarked $45 million more for early childhood education, a down payment on Blagojevich's plan for universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and $10 million for a pilot program to reduce class sizes in selected grade schools.

But Republicans note the $417 million increase in grants is more than offset by a $485 million cut in the state's scheduled pension payment to the teachers' retirement system, part of a two-year Democratic plan to shift $2.3 billion from the five state-funded pension plans into spending on current programs.

Concern about pension funding is not just a partisan issue; a Wall Street bond house warned in April that the state's $41 billion unfunded pension liability — the largest in the nation — likely would hurt the state's credit rating.

Moreover, under the deferral plan adopted last year, the required retirement contribution would more than double in just three years, jeopardizing funding for schools, health care, human services and other causes dear to Democrats.

Consider, for example, state funding for elementary and secondary education, where the new budget would increase grants to local school districts by $417 million, according to the State Board of Education.

Education advocates, meanwhile, pointed out that the increase in the foundation level would not keep pace with inflation and fell far short of the $6,405 recommended by school finance experts.

Nor was the preschool expansion truly "universal," as the governor ballyhooed, but instead would be available first to youngsters deemed at risk because of low income or other circumstances, then to children from families earning less than four times the federal poverty level, roughly $80,000 for a family of four. In addition, the program is set to expire after the 2007-2008 school year, far short of the minimum five-year span early childhood education experts say would be needed to reach all eligible kids.

In similar fashion, Democratic lawmakers approved a new college aid plan the governor can claim will help working families pay higher tuition costs, though not as generous to the better-off as Blagojevich initially proposed.

Under pressure largely from minority Democrats, lawmakers reshaped the governor's call for a $1,000 tuition tax credit for good students in their first two years, regardless of family income. The compromise targets $34.4 million more to the need-based Monetary Award Program and a like amount to a new MAP Plus, which would offer grants of $250 per semester to sophomores, juniors and seniors whose family incomes do not exceed $200,000.

But the new program, which would be in effect only for the coming academic year, is contingent on the state's sale or restructuring of its $3 billion-plus secondary student loan portfolio, the details of which remain to be worked out. Moreover, the $500 available under the new grant program would not cover tuition and fee increases at many state schools. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, tuition will climb $666 next year, while tuition and fees will jump $984 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

University administrators say the ongoing hikes are the result of four years over which state support for their schools dipped by some $196 million. Public universities are in line for a $26 million increase — less than 2 percent — in FY07.

While Blagojevich touted funding for his plan to provide health insurance coverage for all Illinois children, as well as a new $8-million program to assist needy veterans, GOP lawmakers criticized the mounting backlog of bills from doctors, pharmacists and other health care providers for services rendered under the existing Medicaid program.

Sitting on as much as $1.8 billion in past-due health care bills, Republicans argued, amounted to stiffing providers to free up dollars for new programs. Administration officials said the backlog would not exceed $1.3 billion, allowing bills to be paid more quickly than at present. Whichever estimate proves more accurate, health care advocates warn that the state's chronic slow-pay practices threaten care for the needy by making practitioners less likely to treat Medicaid patients.

But Blagojevich and his partymates are betting that voters will be happier with a spend now, pay later budget than with the live-within-our-means alternative Republicans are offering.


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, June 2005

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Related Stories