By DOUG FINKE
STATE CAPITOL BUREAU
SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois House Democrats passed their own budget plan Wednesday that gives a significant funding increase to education, but keeps spending on most other state services flat.
However, even many Democrats who voted for the bill -- it passed 63-53 -- believe it shortchanges programs and is not the final word on the state's new budget year that starts July 1.
There's also no indication when or if the Senate will consider the House Democrat bill that was presented to members just hours before they were asked to vote on it. Midnight today is the spring session's adjournment deadline, meaning that if a budget isn't passed by then, Republican votes would be needed in the House.
The Democrats' proposal increases spending by about $800 million, paid for with natural revenue growth from economic expansion and about $300 million from ending some business tax breaks.
The proposed $400 million increase for education, though, is far less than the $1.5 billion requested by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The House Democrats' budget also does not include any money to start Blagojevich's universal health-care plan, something he has labeled a top priority. Nor does it include money for pay raises required by state employee union contracts or to cover their increased health insurance costs.
"This budget is not balanced. There's over $1 billion (in expenses) you did not appropriate money for," said Rep. David Winters, R-Shirland.
Rep. Gary Hannig of Litchfield, the House Democrats' top budget negotiator, said the plan reflects the fact that most Democrats don't support either an income or sales tax increase or the gross-receipts tax proposed by Blagojevich.
"This is the best we can do at this revenue level," Hannig said. "It is a good, solid, modest budget."
Blagojevich's office offered no comment. The governor has goaded House Democrats for days to produce a spending plan if they did not like one he proposed in March.
Still, even some Democrats reacted cynically when the plan was presented to them in a three-hour, closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon.
"My anticipation is that it (the budget) will pass and we'll send it over to the Senate, and that's where it will sit and we will go into overtime," said Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago, leader of the House Black Caucus.
"It's an opening gambit at the 11th hour," said Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, a key Blagojevich ally in the House. "This is certainly in my mind not the ending budget."
Some Democrats view what passed Wednesday night as House Speaker Michael Madigan's starting point for further negotiations. Others see it as a stop-gap measure to keep state government going if the General Assembly runs into a lengthy overtime session. There is widespread belief among lawmakers that Blagojevich will call them back into special session beginning June 1 if they do no approve his plan to provide health insurance to all Illinoisans.
"I think putting it in the hands of the Senate Democrats, if we need to have a continuing appropriation so things don't shut down, I think it's a decent start," said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego wants less spending than either Blagojevich or Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, but he objected to the House Democrat plan because it is built on ending $300 million worth of business tax breaks.
"We have said from day one we can balance this budget without raising taxes, and their budget requires a $300 million tax increase right at business," Cross said. "It's not something that I see any (Republicans) supporting."
The half-dozen business tax breaks targeted are mostly highly technical and dealing with things like computing deductions and how multi-state businesses allocate income for tax purposes. The Democrats steered away from some politically sensitive tax breaks such as the sales tax exemption for farm equipment and breaks on computer software purchases.
"We chose the ones where we thought we could make the strongest argument that these are not about economic development and job creation," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. "One person's loophole may be another's effort to bring jobs and economic development to the state of Illinois. I think these are pretty clearly loopholes and ought to be closed."
A Senate committee, meanwhile, approved a revised gambling bill that establishes a land-based casino in Chicago operated by an authority appointed by the mayor, governor and lawmakers.
The bill also would establish new casinos in Lake County, the south Chicago suburbs and near O'Hare International Airport; allow existing casinos to add thousands of gaming positions; let the state authorize Internet wagering on horse races at Illinois tracks; and permit electronic poker wagering between casinos.
Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, said the package could produce $2.1 billion for the state the first year and more than $1 billion in revenue annually after that. About $350 million would be set aside to pay for a construction bond program for schools and road projects.
The plan also will split about $57 million a year among the state's public universities.
Republicans objected that Chicago State University, a pet facility of Jones, is earmarked to get $14 million of that. But Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, said the disproportionate amount is to make up for the school being slighted in previous years.
The gambling-expansion bill has yet to be approved by the full Senate. Even if it is, it may go nowhere in the House. Madigan does not have enough Democratic votes to pass a gaming bill that adds casinos without Republican help, and Cross has said Republicans will not support such a bill.
Adriana Colindres, Laura Camper and Jeremy Pelzer of the State Capitol Bureau contributed to this report. Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.