In a startling election-year power shift last week, Illinois legislators - particularly Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives - broke ranks with legislative leaders and reclaimed some authority over the troubled state budget.

Lame-duck Governor George Ryan and the four legislative leaders on January 9 agreed to give Ryan the ability to unilaterally cut state-agency budgets by up to 5 percent to bring expenditures in line with sagging revenues, and the Senate went along with the measure. But the House narrowly defeated it on January 10, thus claiming for legislators the ability to sign off on all cuts - and perhaps restore funding from $500 million in trims Ryan made in fall 2001. (The state's budget is more than $50 billion.)

"Finally the legislature is coming of age," said Senator Denny Jacobs, a Moline Democrat who voted against the Ryan initiative. "Some of us [in the legislature] truly believe we have the responsibility. ... One man shouldn't make all those decisions."

"It's basically our job," said Representative Mike Boland, a Moline Democrat who voted "no" on the Ryan measure. Budget decisions shouldn't be made by "just the Four Tops [the legislative leaders] and the governor."

This is a new philosophy for many legislators, who largely kept silent as party bigwigs hoarded budget power in the leadership offices over the past two decades. It has become common for legislators to vote on a state budget without having the opportunity to review it carefully.

Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator and now senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government & Public Affairs, wrote presciently to start the new year that "budget-making in Illinois state government is done deep in a dark hole that emits no light. ... And the decisions should be made in the light of day. This will happen, however, only if back-benchers embarrassed by their ignorance of the budget demand to become players."

That was exactly what happened last week, and the House vote set the tone for the current legislative session, which will probably be consumed by adjusting the current fiscal year's budget and crafting a 2002-3 spending plan. "The budget's going to take the major part of our time and our effort," Jacobs said.

Bringing the current budget in line, Jacobs said, will require a net of between $100 million and $150 million in spending cuts or revenue infusion. Others have put the budget gap at closer to $200 million. Ryan had pledged that only state school aid would not be cut in the second round of budget trimming.

One reason House Democrats blocked the Ryan proposal was that they want to restore some of the $500 million in cuts the governor made last year, or at least prevent cuts to pet programs and constituencies in this round. In part, they need something to take to their constituents, because all House seats are up for election this fall.

Democrats, in particular, fretted that nursing homes would see their reimbursement rates drop for treating Medicaid patients, after the legislature had worked hard to boost that rate in recent years. State money for nursing-home care was "most certainly" on the chopping block, Jacobs said.

He added that one way to cut state spending would be to enact a "zero-based budgeting" process. Instead of working from last year's appropriations, the legislature would essentially start from scratch. Each state agency would have to present a proposal and justify every expenditure, thus helping to eliminate unnecessary but institutionalized programs and positions. "It would really give us a handle," Jacobs said. "If there's waste, let's go and find it."

The legislature does have options beyond cutting, though. For example, the state has more than $1 billion in bad debt owed to it, and an aggressive campaign to collect some of that could help ease the current budget crunch.

Illinois also has a reserve fund of approximately $177 million that could be used to make up the current budget shortfall. "There's no reason we can't say, 'This is our rainy day,'" Jacobs said.

The senator added that the legislature could also eliminate some of the tax breaks it's passed over the past decade, which drain approximately $1 billion a year from state coffers. One example, Jacobs said, was a sales-tax exemption for farm equipment.

"We're not without blame," he noted. "We overspent when times were very, very good."

Nowlan threw out some other ideas to the River Cities' Reader. The state could cut 5,000 employees and save approximately $250 million a year, or it could set aside more than $100 million in "member initiative" money (funds to be spend in legislators' districts) that hasn't been spent yet.

But Nowlan added that the legislature might also simply avoid the problem by extending the state's payment cycle, pushing expenditures into the next fiscal year and thus "balancing" the current fiscal year's budget.

Most of the measures being discussed are generally short-term fixes for the current budget. The real trouble will come when lawmakers tackle the budget for next fiscal year.

"I think we'll survive the next six months," Boland said. "The problem is: What do you do in the 2003 budget?"

"We have to get this budget under control before we can look at next year's budget," Jacobs said.

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