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Staring down economic despair, lawmakers getting used to saying 'no'
By John Patterson and Nicole Milstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/2/2009 12:08 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - In typical years, state lawmakers face a daily deluge of requests from local governments, school districts and myriad interest groups seeking more money for their causes.

This year, however, is not a typical year.

The groups are still here seeking funding. Everyone from women with eating disorders to school superintendents to community college students has ventured to the Capitol in recent days seeking continued, if not increased, state financial commitments.

"Everybody wants something and nobody wants to pay for it," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.

But the state finds itself increasingly unable to pay for current services as rising unemployment has zapped income tax collections and the overall economic downturn combined with increased spending pressures could produce a budget hole of $10 billion, if not more. That's out of a spending account that totals roughly $27 billion.

Given the grave financial projections, suburban lawmakers say they're growing accustomed to telling people "no."

"I am telling officials to pray for a capital bill and not to count on any operational assistance," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

Lake Barrington Republican state Sen. Dan Duffy urged local officials to remain patient.

"It is a difficult time obviously in Illinois history, but we have to see where we stand," Duffy said. "I think the governor is doing a great job of trying to find out exactly where we are at in the state and how much money we actually have and what our debt is."

And Schaumburg Democratic state Rep. Paul Froehlich said people need to realize just how dire the situation is.

"Any new money is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible," Froehlich said. "But some still want to get in line. They want to raise an issue for the future. But basically, look, we're in real risk of not paying our current bills. To add to our bills is not in the cards this year."

Around the Capitol, few lawmakers believe they can singularly cut or tax their way out of this hole, with some politically unpalatable mix of cuts and increases along with billions of federal stimulus dollars likely being used to maintain state services.

"There isn't a tax increase big enough to get us out of this," said state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican.

So far, suburban members say they're unwilling to sign onto a tax increase. Most are awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's March 18 budget address for indications of how he plans to proceed.

Quinn has offered few hints at what's coming. He told the Daily Herald last week that talk of huge tax hikes was "premature" but hasn't ruled out higher taxes. He recently reopened several state parks that ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich had cut to save money and punish political critics.

Attempts to further cut budgets will produce a great deal of political turmoil from interest groups and lawmakers. Already, some lawmakers are angry over the Illinois State Board of Education's decision to eliminate a lineup of smaller, targeted programs in order to come up with more money for general state school aid and statewide reimbursements for special education.

The piqued legislators believed cuts target programs that service primarily poor minority areas while everyone, including affluent suburbs, benefits from a shift of funding.

Expect more such flare-ups in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Kathy Ryg, a Vernon Hills Democrat, said she's telling groups to try to find ways to broaden the effects of state assistance and urging them to seek more-efficient private operators for programs and services currently being managed by the state.

"We need to look at the way we're spending money and say, does this make sense?" said Ryg.