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Ill. Legislature approves ‘incomplete’ 2015 budget

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Legislature wound down its spring session Friday after sending Gov. Pat Quinn a state budget that majority Democrats acknowledge postpones tough decisions about whether to slash spending or find new sources of revenue – including possibly making Illinois' temporary tax increase permanent – until after the November election.

Senate Democrats approved the approximately $35.7 billion 2015 spending plan, which the House passed earlier in the week, with no GOP support.

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Senate budget negotiator, described the plan as "incomplete" but the best lawmakers could do this session. He said legislators will have to either find additional funds in the next year or cut at least $4.4 billion in expenses — an amount some lawmakers say could lead to thousands of layoffs, closing facilities and slashing programs.

"I'm not trying, nor is anybody trying, to hide from the fact that we face challenges," Kotowski said. "We'll need to have options on the table ... to either fill this hole or wreak havoc."

Republicans called the plan irresponsible and warned the Legislature is headed toward a repeat of 2011. That's when Democrats returned to Springfield after the fall election and voted to increase Illinois' income tax by 67 percent with the help of so-called "lame duck" legislators who were finishing out their term after not being re-elected.

"We can see what's coming like having the other team's playbook," said Sen. Dale Righter of Mattoon. "We can see this team is in the same situation that they were four years ago and they are going to run the same play."

The House adjourned for the spring session late Friday and the Senate was expected to do the same early Saturday, capping a five-month stretch at the Capitol in which the fall election loomed large. Busy primary campaign schedules and concerns about taking controversial votes made for a quieter-than-usual session in which the budget and possible tax increase extension were the dominant questions.

Quinn and other Democratic leaders wanted to extend Illinois' temporary income tax increase, which is set to roll back in January. But House Democrats — all of whom face re-election in November — couldn't get enough "yes" votes to do so this session.

Instead, legislative leaders drafted a budget that keeps funding levels flat next year for schools and most state agencies but doesn't account for increased costs.

It relies on many of the same practices that have been blamed for causing Illinois' bleak financial situation. They include relying on future increases in revenue that may or may not be realized, borrowing money from special funds to pay for day-to-day operations and delaying paying bills — adding to Illinois' roughly $4.7 billion backlog.

Quinn criticized the Legislature for not approving the budget he proposed in March, which called for the tax increase to be made permanent and which he said would have continued to pay down the state's overdue bills while funding vital services.

"The General Assembly didn't get the job done," the Chicago Democrat said in a statement. A spokesman said Quinn would review the budget carefully before deciding whether to amend or veto any parts of it.

The temporary tax increase raised the rate for individuals from 3 percent to 5 percent. It is set to drop to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1, a decrease Senate GOP leader Sen. Christine Radogno said would put about a week's salary back into the pocket of the typical Illinois family.

The Senate also is expected to approve a $1 billion capital construction program that would provide money for roads and bridges. The measure passed the House on Thursday with bipartisan support from lawmakers who said the money was particularly needed because the exceptionally harsh winter damaged Illinois roads and bridges.

The capital projects will be paid for with money that's still coming in to cover a prior capital plan. Some of those bonds have been paid off.

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