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Illinois lawmakers continue 2015 budget talks

SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Illinois lawmakers continued to grapple Wednesday with a new state budget, as Republicans ripped majority Democrats for spending beyond their means with a plan even Democrats acknowledge leaves "big unanswered questions" about the state's finances.

A Senate committee debated the $37.5 billion budget approved by the House on Tuesday. But no votes were held as of early Wednesday evening because House Speaker Michael Madigan waited to send the bills to the Senate.

The spending plan was put together after House Democrats were unable to get enough support prior to the November election to make Illinois' temporary income tax increase permanent. Without that roughly $1.8 billion in revenue, the budget keeps spending for schools and most state agencies flat next year but doesn't account for increased costs – a calculation some lawmakers have said could lead to thousands of layoffs of state employees.

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton has said it's likely legislators will return after the election and approve either the tax increase extension or other revenue. If they don't, Illinois' dismal financial situation will be even worse, Sen. Daniel Biss said Wednesday.

"It's a budget that acknowledges that there are big unanswered questions that this Legislature has to deal with," the Evanston Democrat said. "I think we all understand the Legislature isn't ready to finalize all the hard decisions, so we're doing the best we can. ... But anybody who doesn't think there aren't very tough decisions coming down the road is absolutely fooling themselves."

Republican Sen. Matthew Murphy said the GOP – which opposes making the income tax increase permanent – knows that particular battle isn't over. He also criticized Democrats for not doing more to rein in spending, saying "they can't help themselves."

"They're going to overspend, they're gonna borrow, and they're going to use a lot of the gimmicks that got us in the financial mess in the first place," the Palatine lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, the Illinois House on Wednesday approved another $1.8 billion in state spending for the current fiscal year.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and a House budget negotiator, said Illinois had higher-than-projected revenue this year, thanks to an improved economy.

The legislation allocates about $900 million to paying down Illinois' backlog of unpaid bills, which the comptroller's office said earlier this month was about $4.7 billion. Extra funds also will go toward public safety and restoring adult dental and podiatry services for Medicaid recipients.

Lawmakers face a Saturday deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.


Associated Press writer Chacour Koop contributed to this report.

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