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updated: 5/24/2012 5:24 AM

Illinois Senate budget called premature

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  • American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees union members, friends and family rally against the proposed pension legislation outside the Capitol Wednesday in Springfield.

      American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees union members, friends and family rally against the proposed pension legislation outside the Capitol Wednesday in Springfield.
    Associated Press

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- They've yet to agree on how to answer the state's two most pressing financial challenges, but Illinois Senate Democrats drove forward with a state budget plan Wednesday evening, anyway.

House lawmakers continue to work on their own version behind closed doors, so the Senate's budget could represent no more than a negotiating point as both chambers have to agree to a plan.

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Republicans criticized the Democratic budget, arguing that lawmakers haven't yet agreed on how to cut the state's spending on health care for the poor or how to reform its pension plans.

How much the state has to pay for schools, care for the disabled and other programs largely hinges on whether lawmakers can cut health care spending, so state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, accused Democrats of rushing their budget to try to get political leverage on a House plan.

"So it's more important to beat the House than to pass a sound budget?" Murphy said.

But Democrats shot back at the GOP for not presenting an alternative.

"I really wanted to see that bill and work together," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski of a Park Ridge.

The budget debate was long and intensely partisan.

"I haven't seen so much manufactured drama since the last time I turned on Fox television and watched 'Glee,'" state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, said, referring to Murphy.

The budget the Senate approved on a party-line vote would hold back about $1.3 billion to go toward the state's $9 billion in unpaid bills. It would refrain from cutting money for local schools, but would hit human services and public safety spending.

The proposal would also freeze local towns' share of state income taxes, an idea suburban mayors traveled to Springfield Wednesday to protest.

City leaders say they have already reduced staff, and further cuts would create a public safety issue, as police and fire departments would be subject to cuts.

The most damage, though, could be to the relationship between the state and local government, said Barrington Hills Mayor Robert G. Abboud.

"Why would I ever want to do another deal with the state in terms of working together ... when I know in 12 months they'll be reaching into the cookie jar to take the share from the municipalities?" Abboud said.

Suburban workers traveled to Springfield Wednesday to protest budget issues as well.

Marsha Vitiello, a worker at Elgin Mental Health Center, was one of hundreds of state workers urging lawmakers not to cut back on pension benefits.

"Our pay was low because we got our pensions and our health benefits," she said.

But as retirement costs have skyrocketed for the state, lawmakers are trying to find a way to cut their pension costs. And a proposal to do so -- as well as cut health care spending and draft a complex state budget -- are on lawmakers' to-do list before their May 31 deadline.

Budget negotiations will include the proposal the Senate approved Wednesday, but the final version is likely to look different.

"This is a plan that's not ready for prime-time," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

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