Illinois budget numbers challenging
Illinois may have just over a billion dollars that's not included in Gov. Pat Quinn's new budget. But lawmakers in Springfield say just because they may have the extra cash, it doesn't mean they will spend it.
On Tuesday, legislators began the process of crafting a new state budget by trying to agree on just how much Illinois has to spend. It's the first time in years lawmakers will use actual numbers — a new law requires it along with spending caps. But finding a price tag for the new spending plan is proving difficult.
Quinn's budget is based on $30.9 billion in revenue. The governor said last month he wants to spend closer to $35.4 billion in 2012. Quinn is expecting some federal money to come to Illinois that is not included in the revenue estimates.
But the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability issued its own report that is more than a billion dollars more optimistic than the governor's estimate. COGFA puts the return from taxes, fees, and the lottery at $32.1 billion.
The Commission's Dan Long said COGFA expects a better return on the newly passed personal and corporate income tax increases than Quinn's budget office. Long said his commission is looking at a "lag" this summer that could boost the amount of money Illinois collects in the next fiscal year that begins in July.
The differences may be a matter of when Illinois counts the cash, but those differences could become a major point of contention as lawmakers look to trim state spending this spring. In other words, lawmakers may see an extra billion dollars as the best way to avoid unpopular cuts to schools or social services.
State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, who is in charge of finding the "true price tag" for the next state budget ,is already trying to tamp-down that kind of thinking.
"We're going to be very cautious of estimates of revenue that have a chance of actually not being met by the state," said Bradley. "So it's possible that (we) could take an even more conservative approach than (either Quinn's budget office or COGFA)."
Bradley is not guessing what the Legislature's bottom line number may be, though he said he hopes to agree with Republicans on that number in the next few days.
When lawmakers decide how much the state will have to spend next year, they also will have to decide what to do with anything that may be left over. State Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein, said Illinois has some serious needs, and a billion dollars could be a big help.
Sullivan is the first to worry about a surplus at the Illinois Capitol in years. The state has struggled through underfunded budgets for the past several years. For two years in a row, lawmakers simply gave Quinn lump sum budgets and told him to manage the spending. The process to change that this year has lead to the discussions in Springfield.
But even after lawmakers decide on a final budget price tag, there will not be firm answers, according to economist J. Fred Giertz with the University of Illinois. He told lawmakers that no one has a crystal ball, and the guesses from Quinn and COGFA are just that, guesses.
"Both are very reasonable, and they're dealing with a very, very difficult kind of situation," Giertz said. "And it's going to take some time to work that out. So this year there is going to be some degree of uncertainty."