So many dollars. So little time
to figure out where they all went

by Burney Simpson

There are two ways bureaucrats commonly respond to requests for information. The first is to refuse outright to answer questions. The second is to provide so much detail the questioner is overwhelmed and the answers are effectively buried.

Republican Gov. George Ryan' s massive $42.8 billion budget and five-year, $12 billion Illinois First bonding program had the second effect on many state lawmakers in the final days of the spring session. Ryan effectively overwhelmed any second guesses.

He and the four legislative leaders divvied up so many dollars and so many goodies that many rank-and-file legislators were left shaking their heads, a little dazed by how quickly so much taxpayer money can be spent - though they could be certain somewhere in the voluminous budget was money for projects in their districts.

Indeed, the largess was unusually bipartisan. Chicago Democrats seemed especially shell-shocked to see so many state dollars flowing their way. This was a whole new political ball game after eight years of Jim Edgar, who played the tightwad dad. Suddenly, Ryan, the indulgent grandfather, was splurging on hot dogs, cotton candy, maybe even a sip of beer.

But now some observers are beginning to ask where all that money went. And not a few are beginning to worry Illinois has put itself out on a fiscal limb. Take state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger. The Elgin Republican, who heads his chamber' s Appropriations Committee, is troubled that the budget doesn' t appear to be flexible enough to weather a possible economic downturn. He points to the costs of health care for low-income Illinoisans, which have to be paid, no matter what. Those costs, he warns, go up when the economy falters. " This [budget] is certainly different from what we did under Edgar. This is more aggressive. With a conservative budget, you have flexibility to shift more to entitlement programs. But if you guess wrong, you don' t have that safety net."

Still others question the way the budget got put together.

" Those of us not on the Appropriations Committee don' t have a good picture of how the governor' s budget matches with the state' s revenues," says Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat from Chicago. " We don' t have the chance to look at the programs that are good and put more into those and take money out of programs that aren' t working."

But, according to Rauschenberger and others, even his previously influential committee didn' t get much input on the spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1. The committee trimmed parts of the governor' s initial request, but those dollars were later restored. And more were added.

" The leaders and the governor made a deal and the appropriations meetings were ignored," says Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a former legislative staffer. Redfield says most lawmakers have been removed from budget negotiations. The current system gives that power almost exclusively to the governor and to the leaders of each party in the Senate and House.

" Voters should want their [legislators] to examine the budget and the state bonding program and discuss them. But those discussions didn' t happen," he says. " They should put the department heads on the hot seat, and hold the bureaucracy accountable and ask tough questions."

If some Statehouse professionals feel out of the loop, their constituents shouldn' t be surprised when the numbers from Springfield leave them a trifle confused.

Still, it' s hard to complain when the governor is so accommodating with the state' s checkbook. While he may question the process, even Obama gives Ryan credit for his interest in local projects.

In fact, so-called " member initiatives" provided another incentive for politicians to ignore the fine print. Cost estimates for such initiatives ranged from $280 million to $380 million, divvied roughly equally between the two parties in both chambers. The final tally isn' t clear because the leaders and some lawmakers have not yet released details on all of the projects to be funded.

Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs has become the designated cashier for most of these projects. Funding for

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others was sprinkled throughout the budgets for the governor' s agencies, including the Department on Aging and the Department of Human Services. The Board of Higher Education' s budget contains a few as well. And the dollars will be channeled through a confusing array of revenue streams, including old bonding authority (Build Illinois), new bonding authority (Illinois First) and outright appropriations.

Just trying to read the budget is a feat in itself. The key document, which outlines spending for most state agencies, runs to 1,055 pages. A second smaller budget measure, totaling a meager 92 pages, outlines education spending. A handful of other measures were designed to dot the i' s and cross the t' s.

Combined, these documents provide a lot of information. All of it public. Yet citizens who attempt to get a handle on what their tax dollars purchased will be hard-pressed to find out. That' s because the legislative projects were thrown into the budget haphazardly. A $115,000 appropriation for bleachers in downstate Staunton, say, will follow two $25,000 appropriations for vans that will go to dance troupes in Chicago' s Hispanic neighborhoods. A spokesperson for the governor' s budget department says so many local spending items were added or altered in the closing hours of the session that typists were lucky to get them into the final document.

To make matters more confusing, Republicans chose to fund most of their projects in vaguely worded lump sum amounts, rather than list them project by project, as is the usual case in public budget-making. For example, one appropriation for $39 million will be spread among " units of local government, educational facilities and not-for-profit organizations for infrastructure improvements, including but not limited to planning, construction, reconstruction, equipment ... ." In the next paragraph, $12.2 million is appropriated to the same groups for infrastructure, including equipment and vehicles. Specifics just aren' t there.

While that accounting method may raise eyebrows, the party line labels it sensible. " The last week of the session is like a shotgun blast with everybody getting projects," says Murphysboro GOP Rep. Mike Bost. " Until you' ve been through the process, you don' t realize where the problems can occur."

The lump sum approach, he argues, is a more realistic way to designate money because any mistake in the wording could slow the dollars. A line item may indicate the money goes to Makanda Township, while it was really meant for Makanda village, says Bost. If that mistake is in the budget, the money sits in Springfield until the fall veto session, when the problem can be straightened out.

Nevertheless, Democrats opted to spell out their projects, no doubt to help foil any last-minute gubernatorial shifts in spending priorities. As it turns out, neither party needed to worry. Ryan signed the budget and flew all across the state to tout the results.

Cozy as the two parties appear to be these days, though, politics is still an important part of budget-making. In fact, a curious voter who doesn' t want to pore over the budget can get some clue about how much the home district will receive by checking his or her legislator' s seniority and position in the party hierarchy. According to Rep. Art Turner, one of the two deputy majority leaders in the House, the typical lawmaker got at least $350,000 in initiative money, while those on an appropriations committee got twice as much. A committee chair got $1.2 million, as did party officers such as Turner and the six assistant majority leaders.

Turner, a Chicago Democrat, will spend his initiative money on 21 projects for youth development programs, senior centers, transitional housing, a food pantry and other constituent services.

But the dollars also were distributed with an eye to the next election. The partisan division in the House - 62 Democrats to 56 Republicans - is close enough that control of the chamber could shift again. And there' s a possibility, though remote, the Senate - with 32 Republicans and 27 Democrats - could change hands, too.

The party in charge will draw the legislative maps after next year' s population census, possibly securing control of the General Assembly for the next decade. So the party leaders in the legislature have been planning their election strategies for some time now.

Of course, many districts in both chambers are safe bets for their parties. DuPage County isn' t going to go Democratic any time soon. And the Republicans probably won' t make dramatic inroads in Chicago' s inner city in the next few years. These safe districts often don' t get a lot of extra budget money, especially if their legislators have little seniority. But political swing districts, the so-called party targets, have the strategists salivating. So this year' s budget included additional dollars for those incumbents. One example is Rep. Jack Franks, a freshman Democrat from Woodstock who will get $2.7 million in initiative money. The one-time rural Republican area is in fast-growing McHenry County northwest of Chicago, and the Democrats want Franks to keep this toehold as city constituents move out to the country. To be fair, Ryan' s budget also was supported by lawmakers because it included dollars they had sought without success for years. And Turner is the first to say he didn' t engineer funds for Chicago' s aging roads and transit systems. Ryan did. Still, he and other legislators can' t help but point to new construction when constituents ask, " Just what do you do down in Springfield?"

After a blockbuster spring session that set records for spending, legislators may be justified in feeling overwhelmed but pleased. Turner sums it up for many of his colleagues: " This is not necessarily the best way to deliver services. But they told me, you have this money, so I got busy allocating it." 

7 / July/August 1999 Illinois Issues