Quinn signs state budget hours before deadline

Gov. Pat Quinn at the Thompson Center in Chicago earlier this week. (Heather Charles/Tribune)

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn took aim at hospitals and school transportation late Thursday in cutting $376 million from the state budget lawmakers sent him.

The idea is to take part of those savings and any increase in revenue from a hoped-for economic recovery to provide more money for education and jump-start a stalled borrowing plan that would whittle down the state’s multi-billion dollar backlog of overdue bills, administration officials said.

Quinn signed the budget into law only a few hours before a midnight deadline to get a spending plan in place. The new budget year begins Friday and without Quinn's action state government soon would not have been able to spend money.

Lawmakers, however, will have to take up Quinn’s proposed cuts when they return to Springfield in October for the fall session. They could agree with the governor or override his veto. And taxpayers can expect some lawmakers to push for spending increases on social services and education.

The governor laid out the cuts in a message to lawmakers: $276 million in Medicaid spending, $89 million in school transportation spending and more than $11 million earmarked for regional school superintendent offices.

All told, the cutbacks would see the state spend a tad less than $33 billion in its operating budget the next 12 months.

On school transportation — money districts use to pay for busing students — Quinn sliced the $294 million lawmakers wanted to spend by $89 million.

The move became an immediate flashpoint. Republican Rep. Roger Eddy, a school superintendent from downstate Hutsonville, said the cuts will hurt the Chicago suburbs and rural districts where some children need to travel many miles to get to schools.

Eddy contended Quinn’s actions made him appear to have a “vendetta against transporting kids.”

“If you don’t get kids to school and transporting kids is obviously vital to get them there, you can’t teach them,” said Eddy, the Republican spokesman for the House committee dealing with elementary and high school spending.

The governor’s top aides said Quinn wanted to spend less on that than lawmakers did.

“We don’t think this is the highest priority,” said David Vaught, Quinn’s budget director. “When you’re trying to hold spending down, we don’t think it was appropriate for the General Assembly to raise this spending.”

The Medicaid trims are billed as rate cuts to what the state pays hospitals to care for low-income patients. But “safety net” hospitals that have a high proportion of poor patients would not have to wait any longer than they currently do for repayment, the Quinn administration said. Many of those hospitals are in Chicago.

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said Quinn's rate cuts would be up for discussion, noting the state hospital lobby isn't known to roll-over.

Quinn also wants the state to enact broader Medicaid reforms, such as cutting and readjusting some rates of payments for hospitals and nursing homes, Vaught said. The governor also wants to tap into more preventive and managed care to address the medical issues of poor people before they get more complicated and expensive, Vaught said.

“We have a very complicated system that’s full of inefficiencies, and we don’t think it works very well,” Vaught said.

Quinn has wanted to eliminate regional education offices altogether, arguing more money should be spent in the classroom than on bureaucracy.

Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said the idea of cutting the state money for the offices would be a bad move because it might be tough to find local funds to make up the difference.

The lateness of Quinn’s announcement meant many lawmakers and interest groups were still formulating opinions Thursday night. And the governor’s office said Quinn had no public appearances planned Friday.

As the budget deadline loomed, Quinn spent Wednesday in Washington, D.C. to pick up a governor of the year honor from the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Lawmakers approved the budget at the end of May, slashing $171 million in public school funding, erasing financial support for everything from teacher and principal mentoring to state writing tests for high school students.

The budget also cut money for college scholarships, to deliver meals to seniors and provide job training to people on food stamps.

Sen. Dan Kotowski said he supported Quinn’s changes, particularly if it frees up money to be re-directed to other areas such as scholarships for needy students and meals for home-bound elderly.

“It’s his prerogative as governor to look at the budget and develop priorities,” said Kotowski, D-Park Ridge. “If he has found more cuts are in order to save taxpayer money, while also addressing some of the priorities that need support, we are generally supportive of that.”

The blueprint largely was a joint effort between House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. The two teamed up for a $33.2 billion budget that is $2 billion less than what Quinn wanted and $1 billion less than the Illinois Senate put forth.

Senate Democrats tried to tack on up to $430 million in other spending, but the House didn't go along with it. The governor can’t increase spending amounts, only decrease them.Quinn expressed concern from the start that the budget cuts would hurt the state's most vulnerable citizens during a down economy.

The cuts came despite a 67 percent increase in the income-tax rate Democrats pushed through in January. A large part of the tax hike was billed as temporary and some lawmakers called for spending cuts to ensure that they could live up to their tax pledge in four years.