January 11, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois lawmakers return to Springfield Tuesday to face a looming budget deficit, a pile of unpaid bills, a struggling economy — and a raucous election year that will make those challenges more difficult.

The 2010 session will be “one of the most challenging” that Illinois officials have faced, predicted state Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville. And much of that pressure rests on Gov. Pat Quinn, who is scheduled to give the annual “State of the State” address on Wednesday.

Quinn’s office says he intends to address issues such as “creating and retaining jobs in Illinois and stimulating the economy.” Creating more “green” jobs and restoring ethics to state government were also listed as topics he will address.

Likely to remain unmentioned, for now, will be Quinn’s continuing effort to win approval of a major state income tax hike to help balance the budget.

With only three days in Springfield before heading home to continue campaigning for the state’s Feb. 2 primary election, lawmakers say it’s unlikely any decisions about the state’s financial situation or other policy proposals will be made this week.

“The governor keeps saying we’re going to deal with the budget crisis after the primary, and my feeling is if that’s when he’s going to do it, time’s running out,” said Sen. John Jones, R-Mount Vernon, expressing the frustration that a lot of Republicans are voicing lately. “It’s going to take some time for (Quinn and legislative leaders) to come to a conclusion about the budget issue, and time’s been wasted over the last two, three months.”

Jones said he doesn’t believe Quinn can push any significant policy changes through, whether or not he wins the primary against state Comptroller Dan Hynes, Quinn’s main challenger for the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“If Quinn wins the nomination, I think he’ll still try to put through his tax increase, and I’m not sure he can get that done (before the general election). And if Hynes wins the primary a month from now, Quinn’s a lame duck,” Jones said.

Democrats were more sympathetic, and hopeful.

“I don’t envy the governor. He’s inherited the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg,” said Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. “I would hope to see a plan to avert the disaster that awaits us in spring. There’s going to have to be more cuts.”

The state owes almost $9 billion in unpaid bills, and most lawmakers from Southern Illinois acknowledged that cuts in state programs and services are a given in the next budget. Estimates about how much money the state would take in to cover expenses in 2009 and 2010 left many agencies with a stack of IOUs.

“More than anything, these programs and agencies need to have some certainty” about future funding, said Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Sparta. “It’s coming on us to put together a plan that will be real.”

Among other topics, lawmakers could take another step to ensure receiving federal education grants created by last year’s stimulus package. The program, “Race to the Top,” requires school districts to meet certain requirements to be eligible for a share of more than $4 billion.

One of those is allowing teachers and administrators to be evaluated and paid based on student performance. A bill requiring Illinois districts to tie teachers’ pay to their students’ performance on standardized tests and other evaluations could be introduced this week.

If Illinois school districts are chosen for the grants, they could receive anywhere from $200 million to $400 million. The deadline for the first round of applications is Jan. 19.

Some lawmakers have lingering concerns about Race to the Top that they would like to discuss this session. “There’s still some questions about what (the program) is really requiring, what strings are attached to the grant money,” said Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Decatur.