Suburban lawmakers hold key roles in budget debate
SPRINGFIELD -- A number of suburban lawmakers are top budget leaders who are likely to have substantial influence in how Gov. Quinn's budget plan plays out in the General Assembly.
State Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat and a budget committee chairman, praised Quinn for calling for sometimes-drastic cuts.
"I thought it was very real," Kotowski said.
But others, both Republicans and Democrats, are taking aim at certain proposals.
Kotowski's Republican counterpart, state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine, criticized Quinn harshly and said suburban residents should be worried about a suggestion that Democrats might require local school districts to pick up part of teachers' retirement costs.
Quinn didn't propose that specifically Wednesday, but he's brought the idea up in recent weeks. Murphy said the plan would lead to local property tax increases or force local districts to "gut your schools."
A panel expected to recommend a framework for pension reform by mid-April includes three suburban members, among them state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.
Though Nekritz said the panel probably can be ready with a framework by then, it's not likely the issue will be settled.
"I think there will still have to be some give and take," she said.
State Rep. Patti Bellock of Hinsdale is the House Republicans' expert on health care for the poor and was recently named their chief budget negotiator. She said she would have liked more specifics from Quinn during his budget address Wednesday about how to cut Medicaid, but said his hope to pare $2.7 billion from the program seems in line.
"That's what everybody is pretty much in agreement on," she said.
The harder task is finding a way to make those cuts, given that reductions could cause major headaches for suburban hospitals and make it harder for low-income suburban residents to find a doctor who offers Medicaid care.
Medicaid eligibility has skyrocketed in the suburbs in recent years, rising much more dramatically than in the state as a whole. Since 2006, suburban enrollment has risen 89 percent in DuPage County, 76 percent in Kane, 103 percent in McHenry, 73 percent in Lake, 84 percent in Will, and 19 percent in Cook County, including Chicago, according to data from the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
State Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican and longtime budget expert, said deep cuts to Medicaid might be illegal.
"I think it's going to be really hard to rein that in, and if they try to rein in too much, they'll either get in trouble with the federal government or get sued," Mulligan said.
Lawmakers have until May 31 to grapple with those issues. After that deadline, approving a state budget would become more difficult for Democrats because Republican votes would be needed, too.
In the meantime, budget committees are expected to start hammering out spending details in the coming months.
State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who chairs one of those committees, said Quinn's proposals to spend more money in some areas, like education, might not fly because the state is so far behind in paying its bills to all kinds of vendors.
"You invest when you have something to invest," Crespo said. "How can we invest something that you don't have?"
The top Republican on the committee Crespo leads, state Rep. Sandy Cole of Grayslake, suggested Quinn's plan fell short on specifics, leaving most of the budget heavy lifting to lawmakers.
"We've been in a budget and financial crisis. There should have been some answers," she said.