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Illinois Lawmakers Approve Debt-Heavy Stop-Gap Budget

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- Facing a massive deficit and an array of unpleasant choices, Illinois officials decided Wednesday to keep state government running with a budget built around borrowing billions of dollars and letting unpaid bills climb to record levels.

The budget leaves out the sharp tax increase that Gov. Pat Quinn and other top Democrats wanted. It also avoids the drastic spending cuts that were in an earlier spending plan approved by lawmakers but vetoed by Quinn.

Instead, the budget relies on borrowing about $3.5 billion for routine government services. State government also will not pay about $3.2 billion it owes to businesses that provide services for the state.

The budget includes about $2.1 billion in spending cuts, with the possibility of an additional $1.1 billion in cuts later in the year. Quinn has proposed saving that money by laying off 2,600 state employees, requiring the remaining workers to take unpaid furlough days, downsizing state prisons and more.

Lawmakers approved the budget Wednesday night and Quinn quickly signed it into law.

The outcome represents a major defeat for Quinn, who in March outlined an ambitious plan to raise taxes and close the record-breaking $11.6 billion deficit he inherited upon taking office.

Still, the Democrat praised the budget as "a bridge to the future" that keeps government going and gives him a chance to build support for a tax increase later.

"The budget that was adopted tonight is a stable one," Quinn said. "It allows us to focus on our work, our need for reform, and make sure that everybody that provides public service gets paid."

With officials arguing about whether to raise taxes or slash spending, the state's new fiscal year began July 1 without a budget in place. That endangered paychecks for state employees and raised questions for the many contractors and community groups that receive state money.

At least 5,000 paychecks were supposed to go out Wednesday but couldn't because of the deadlock. Comptroller Daniel Hynes' office said they would be delivered Thursday.

Not even the budget's supporters call it a sound financial plan. But they say it will prevent the government shutdown the state faced if the gridlock in Springfield had dragged on.

It also means legislators won't be trapped in an embarrassing, summer-long stalemate while circulating nominating petitions for February's primary election. And they won't have to worry about a tax increase or an interruption of state services inspiring anyone to run against them.

The Service Employees International Union attacked the deal as dangerous because of cuts in programs that provide care for the senior citizens, disabled people and children. The Illinois Federation of Teachers called it "beyond disappointing."

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said his "primary purpose" next year will be overhauling Illinois taxes. He argued that conservatives should join him in backing a tax increase instead of letting the state fall deeper into debt.

"I think it's conservative and responsible to raise revenues to pay your bills. We're not doing that with this budget," Cullerton said.

His Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, argued the goal should be controlling health and pension costs instead of raising taxes.

"People can't afford to keep paying more and more and more to government. People are losing their jobs; people are facing foreclosure," Radogno said.

The $11.6 billion deficit figure includes gaps in the previous fiscal year and the one that just started. It was driven by a mix of plunging tax revenue, rising costs and expanding government programs.

Lawmakers from both parties backed the budget. The key piece of legislation passed 90-22 in the House and 45-10 in the Senate.

Legislators did not spell out where the budget should be cut, leaving those choices to Quinn. To help him, they put large amounts of money into lump sums for him to use wherever necessary and gave him unusual power over spending.

"We've made him king of Illinois by expanding his authority," said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago. "By doing this, we're abdicating some of our powers to put dollars out there, but at this late hour and at this time, it is ... the best we can do."

The budget was approved hurriedly Wednesday evening, hours after the governor and legislative leaders finalized the deal in closed-door negotiations.

The Senate held only one brief hearing on the plan before voting, and the House held none at all. Quinn's office could not state the total size of the budget. The key budget bill passed the Senate with no discussion at all.

The pace infuriated one lawmaker.

"I'm not going to play this game. This is a prostitution of the process!" shouted Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville.

He nevertheless voted for the budget.

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The bills are SB1216, SB1292 and SB1912.

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On the Net:

Illinois Legislature: http://www.ilga.gov

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Associated Press Writer John O'Connor contributed to this report.

-ASSOCIATED PRESS

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