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DuPage legislators, comptroller: Budget standoff 'a mess'

As the ongoing budget standoff in Springfield slowly moves toward a year of financial gridlock, state legislators from DuPage County and state Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger said they are frustrated yet hopeful.

Munger and Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, and Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Wheaton, gathered together April 26 at Benedictine University for a budget panel organized by Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, who was absent because of a family emergency.

The comptroller defended Gov. Bruce Rauner, saying the current budget crisis and the surrounding funding problems were decades in the making, not simply the result of partisan bickering.

"We're closing in on our 10th month of the state not having a budget, which is really challenging, to say the least, and kind of unbelievable to be on the inside now and looking out and saying, 'No wonder things are such a mess financially,'" she said.

Munger said she was legally able to spend about 90 percent of the budget but could not approve funding for a number of important organizations and policy areas without a court order, official voucher and available money.

A myriad of agencies, including human service nonprofits and other providers, have not received regular payments from the state throughout the process, though some have received special dispensations including most recently a $600 million appropriation for higher education. Those that do get some state money are on a several month delay, Munger said.

In response, she recently made the decision to put the paychecks of legislators in the same line as those affected organizations, coming months behind.

All these funding problems have had a toll on not only the operations of the state, but also those who reside in it.

"The numbers that we face I think are really staggering, and it's costing us a lot to run our state this way," she said. "It costs us our friends and neighbors and our children who move out of state when jobs leave."

Sandack and Wehrli both said they believed the higher education bill could be a good sign for many organizations waiting for money from the state.

Munger's fellow panelists agreed Rauner had gotten an unfair amount of blame for the standoff, with Connelly saying Democrats around the state who recently voted on a constitutionally mandated unbalanced budget while saying they would never vote for a tax increase are examples of "hypocrisy of the highest order."

Connelly said Rauner had already agreed to compromise, including expressing openness to a tax increase and dropping several business reform items off the table, and he was waiting on the Democrats to come to the table.

The group pointed to pensions as a large cause of concern, with Munger saying about 25 percent of the state's $32 billion in projected revenue would go toward paying this year's obligations, including more than a billion dollars in debt payment.

Sandack said when he started in the House in 2011, all the conversations were about pensions and pension reform.

"It was what we talked about," he said. "Given what we're going through right now, pensions and pension reform almost never comes up as a conversation. The problem's not gotten better in the past three, four years, it's gotten profoundly worse. ... Pensions became an after thought."

Munger said the state would have to raise property tax collection to 8 percent to balance the budget if it did not make appropriate cuts and called for a complete overhaul of what the state stands for.

"We have to get back to a state that keeps our promises, that lives within our means," she said. "People understand that this is important, that we can't continue on the same path that we've been on."

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