SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner took the governor’s seat Jan. 12 and went right to work on a budget reform plan presented to the Illinois General Assembly on Feb. 18 … but not everyone agrees with his choices.
Among the controversial cuts is an income tax revenue reduction for local municipalities.
“The long and short of it is that we’ll be losing $471,000,” Bethalto Mayor Alan Winslow said during a March 2 Village Board meeting. “With our cash level, that would be a devastating blow.”
Winslow asked trustees to approve a resolution asking to protect full funding of the state’s local government distributive fund. He says if this plan happens, cuts will have to be made somewhere in the village.
Winslow, along with Alton Mayor Brant Walker, attended a meeting March 10 in Greenville where the governor laid out his plans, which he calls “bold, aggressive and comprehensive, that is both very necessary and very doable.”
“Based on what I could gather, those plans appear to be nothing more than talking points, because when asked specific questions, he could offer nothing specific about the ideas presented other than to say, ‘trust him,’” Walker said during a City Council meeting on March 11.
Rauner has frozen funding for a $600,000 state grant for improvements at Gordon Moore Park and $148,000 from a state Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant for planned improvements at Riverview Park, both in Alton.
The cut in the local government distributive fund would mean a $1.3 million hit for Alton, according to Walker.
“I cannot stress enough that a 50 percent reduction in those funds to the city … would be absolutely devastating, not only to public safety but also the city’s ability to maintain and upkeep its infrastructure,” he said.
As Rauner addressed the General Assembly regarding his plans, he quoted Abraham Lincoln.
“The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion,” he said. “We must think anew and act anew.”
He asked the people of Illinois to look at the bigger picture.
“We must be willing to take actions we’d rather avoid and make decisions that may seem unpopular,” he said. “This budget will best serve our people in the long run. The new budget reform is the budget the people of Illinois can afford. This reform is honest and presents an honest path forward.”
Since taking office, Rauner has met with government staff to discuss the budget crisis and introduce the Illinois Turnaround Program. The budget signed last year by former Gov. Pat Quinn is $1.6 billion in the red.
Rauner said the deficit is a result of years of “bad decisions, sleight-of-hand budgeting and giveaways,” not a result of a decrease in tax revenues.
“We must have the political courage to put the people’s interests first and special interests last,” Rauner said. “The current system is designed to benefit those inside the system, not the working families in our state.”
But local municipalities say working families are the ones Rauner’s plan will hurt.
“Rauner’s budget is one thing we’ve been discussing lately,” Wood River City Manager Jim Schneider said. “If it goes through the way he is wanting, it would be devastating to local governments. We’re in the process of negotiation for contracts and the new budget plan would take roughly $500,000 out of our budget.
“Right now things are up in the air.”
Godfrey Mayor Mike McCormick says the proposed cuts could be “devastating” to his village, as well.
“I totally understand that things need to be done, but to take away from the municipalities that take care of the people of Illinois is not the way,” McCormick said. “Cuts should be made at the state level, because the state is why we are in this situation. This would affect services and hinder our day-to-day maintenance of parks and streets.
“It’s not going to be good.”
Rauner’s plans include reforming the government pension package (25 cents of every dollar goes to pay 11,000 retired government employees), putting future employees (with the exception of police and firefighters) into a “Tier 2” pension plan, changing government employee health care costs, creating buyout options for employees hired before 2011, reforming Medicaid and reinstating the Strengthening Medicare and Repaying Taxpayers Act, and making education a priority.
“From cradle to career, our children’s education needs to be our top priority,” Rauner said during the Feb. 4 State of the State address. “That means we must also invest in technical and vocational training. We used to emphasize these programs in our high schools and community colleges, but those efforts have been fading. Let’s end the era of cutting funding for technical training and community colleges.”
As the entire state “tightens its belt,” so must local governments and transportation agencies, according to Rauner. His office says the amount of money the state transfers to local governments has increased 42 percent in the last 10 years, to $6 billion per year. Rauner proposes a 3 percent reduction, encouraging local governments to reduce unfunded mandates and “give local voters and governments the tools to save millions through consolidations, employment flexibility and compensation restructuring.”
“We make difficult choices that no one wants to make,” Rauner said as he closed his General Assembly address. “It’s what we were all elected to do — make choices based on what’s best for the next generation, not for the next election.”
One local municipality is not as worried. Roxana Mayor Paul Oller said he is aware of the budget proposal, but Roxana is in a “comfortable financial position,” and Rauner’s budget proposal would not put their community into a position of being hurt with cuts.
Walker, on the other hand, is very concerned about the future of Alton.
“I came away from that meeting with little doubt the governor had no qualms about balancing the state budget on the back of the municipalities,” he said.
Fred Pollard provided information for this article.