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SPRINGFIELD — Sen. Paul Schimpf struck an optimistic tone after Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget address on Wednesday afternoon, saying Senate Democratic and Republican leaders negotiating a budget deal in the upper chamber understand that “this needs to get done in weeks rather than months.”

The Senate deal in the works — often referred to as the “grand bargain” — is for this current fiscal year, which is fiscal year 2017, while Rauner outlined a budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1. But Schimpf said Rauner’s budget speech gave further guidance to Senate negotiators on what he would like to see in a deal. And if the parties could reach a compromise this year on new revenue sources, pro-business reforms and government cuts and consolidation, it could ease the path forward into fiscal year 2018, he said.

Illinois has gone 19 months without a complete budget, yet the vast majority of state spending has continued by a combination of legislative action, court orders and consent decrees. Public universities, including Southern Illinois University, and social service agencies have been hammered the hardest by the failure of lawmakers to agree to a full year’s budget.

“I would expect that negotiations are going to continue and perhaps even ramp up a little bit,” said Schimpf, R-Waterloo.

In a joint news conference after Rauner’s speech, Schimpf and state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, both freshmen senators in the first year of their terms, said they agree with Rauner that any “grand bargain” compromise and fiscal year 2018 budget must include government cuts and consolidations and pro-business reforms to earn the support of Republicans for new taxes.

Phelps critical of governor 

Others did not warm so much to the words of the governor’s third budget address since he assumed office in January 2015 with a promise to shake up Illinois. Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said in a statement that Rauner should “put aside his extreme agenda and come back to the negotiating table.”

“For the third year in a row, the governor has not done his constitutional duty of putting forward a balanced budget,” Phelps said. “I want to work cooperatively with the governor, and I’ve met him halfway on supporting items like freezing property taxes and reforming the workers’ compensation system.

“While I also agree that we must work together to make Illinois a more business friendly climate, if we just deliver the governor’s corporate agenda, we will be entering Illinois into a race to the bottom. Lowering wages and cutting benefits to increase profits for businesses are not the way to bring more jobs to Illinois.”

Despite Rauner’s call in his budget address for Republicans and Democrats to put a stop to blaming each other for the impasse — something Rauner has engaged in frequently in the past — there still seems to be a wide gap in what legislators from the two parties see as the path forward, at least where the rhetoric is concerned.

Fowler: Business reforms bring jobs 

Fowler said he’s talked to several company owners who are interested in moving their businesses to Southern Illinois. But he said they’ve told him they aren’t willing to do it unless Illinois improves its business climate, and so he seconds what Rauner said on Wednesday and has been saying for months about the need to take action to grow the economy, create jobs and slow the out-migration of Illinois residents to other states.

Fowler said that one of the company owners he has spoken to is currently operating the business in Kentucky, though would like to have the business in Illinois because that’s where the owner lives. But Fowler said the No. 1 roadblock he hears from company owners, including this one, about why they won’t move into Illinois is the cost of workers’ compensation insurance.

Fowler said he believes pro-business reforms would translate into “immediate results” for the Southern Illinois economy through the addition of jobs. “The time to seize the moment is now,” he said.

SIU hurt by impasse 

Meanwhile, a top employer and economic driver in the region — Southern Illinois University — is suffering from a lack of stable state funding that has resulted from the clash between Rauner and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. SIU’s enrollment decline — and potential future staff cuts, if the budget impasse forces major layoffs — has and will continue to cause painful economic consequences. The effect is on not only those employed by the university, but the thousands of private-sector workers the university indirectly supports.

Schimpf said he’s sensitive to the concerns of SIU leaders and others whose livelihoods are closely connected to the university’s viability.

“I am in very close contact with President Dunn. I speak with him a couple of times a week. I understand if we were to go another two years without a budget that the impacts could be devastating for SIU,” Schimpf said. “That’s one of the reasons why I have said I feel like doing nothing is not a realistic option. That is one of the reasons it is an absolute priority for me to get some kind of a deal worked out.”

But Schimpf said he voted against the package floated in the Senate two weeks ago "because I didn’t feel like it was at the point where I could support it.” Still, he said that work on an agreement is ongoing, and his take on the situation is that positive developments are afoot. He also noted that in Rauner’s State of the State speech in January, the governor mentioned he would be looking to SIU and the University of Illinois to turn the state into the Silicon Valley of the central United States.

Rauner “recognizes how important higher education is,” Schimpf said.

Dunn outlines bright spots 

SIU System President Randy Dunn said in listening to the governor’s address on Wednesday in Springfield, he heard several things on which he could agree with the governor. Among them, Dunn said he is supportive of Rauner’s call for a 10 percent increase in Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant funding that helps low-income students pay for college. That would benefit an additional 12,000 students statewide.

Dunn said he also agrees with the governor’s call for procurement reform, as the university has sought greater flexibility and local control in this area.

As it relates to state support for higher education proposed by the governor, Dunn said his latest budget blueprint could be characterized as "making a little progress.” In his first term, the governor proposed a 30 percent cut to state support for public higher education. His fiscal year 2018 budget proposes a 15 percent cut, which would equate to a $30 million reduction as compared to fiscal year 2015, the last year universities received a full year’s funding.

Dunn said the governor’s budget recommendation also appears to propose a way for universities to receive some additional funds via performance-based budgeting. Dunn said he would await further details on what that might entail before commenting on how it might affect SIU.

Dunn also said he agrees with the governor’s assertion that Illinois needs to grow its jobs base. Dunn said that fully funding universities would be a great way to do that, as many positions have gone unfilled in recent years over the state’s financial issues. He said Rauner also recognized the need to catch up on deferred maintenance projects. Moving forward with critical building and renovation repairs could also result in thousands of new jobs, Dunn said.

“What we continue to say in every setting, to every audience, is that we need a budget,” Dunn said. “We need a budget.”

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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