By DOUG FINKE
STATE CAPITOL BUREAU
SPRINGFIELD -- The General Assembly limped closer to an overtime session Tuesday with another hourlong meeting among the Democratic leaders failing to produce a budget agreement.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office said afterward it is time for House Democrats to "get their act together."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, reiterated that House Democrats have different priorities than Blagojevich and aren't inclined to increase spending as much as he wants.
Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, said the House and Senate are basically at an impasse over how much to increase gambling to pay for state services.
And lurking in the wings is House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, who will become a more direct player in budget negotiations if the General Assembly fails to meet its midnight Thursday adjournment deadline. After that time, it will take Republican votes in the House for the three-fifths' majority needed to pass a budget, and Cross has made it clear the state should not expand programs by raising taxes.
"Given what's going on in this state with high gas prices, electric rates and mortgage rates going up, it's not a time to raise taxes," Cross said.
Blagojevich, Jones and Madigan met for more than an hour Tuesday afternoon in Blagojevich's Capitol office. Shortly after that meeting broke up, Blagojevich went to Madigan's office and talked with the speaker for another half an hour.
Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said the governor simply wanted to reiterate his desire to have a budget completed before June 1. The fiscal year begins July 1.
Blagojevich would not come out of his office to answer questions after the first meeting. Blagojevich's deputy governor, Sheila Nix, said the meeting in Blagojevich's office didn't produce much movement.
"We were hoping for an actual plan from House Democrats," Nix said. "Speaker Madigan didn't bring in a proposal or a plan, but he did bring in some additional surveys. We really believe it is time for the House Democrats to get their act together and say what it is they can support."
Madigan said he reiterated to Blagojevich and Jones that House Democrats can support eliminating some business tax breaks, although he did not say which ones or how much money they would raise. He acknowledged, though, that it would be far less than the $8.6 billion Blagojevich wanted to raise from a gross-receipts tax and a payroll tax on business to fund his health-care and education initiatives.
"There are two different views as to how much money might be available to pay for the budget," Madigan said.
Blagojevich met with House Democrats for nearly three hours Monday, and many said afterward the governor seemed adamant about providing large funding increases for education and creating a universal health care program in Illinois.
Democrats in both the House and Senate say that an education-funding increase is their top priority. They've been lukewarm about Blagojevich's plan to provide health insurance to everyone in Illinois.
Madigan also said only 43 of the House's 66 Democrats support an expansion of gambling being pushed by Senate Democrats that would add four Chicago-area casinos to the nine already in operation. That means Republican votes would be needed to pass the bill, and Cross said the GOP won't do that.
"Many members of our caucus feel that is a huge expansion," Cross said. "It's a little too much for Illinois."
House Republicans back a plan allowing existing casinos to add gaming positions and using the money to pay for a construction bond program for schools, mass transit, roads and higher education.
Jones, though, was equally adamant that a plan only allowing existing casinos to expand won't pass the Senate.
"There's no vote in my caucus for that," he said. "Therefore, we don't have anything."
That leaves the clock ticking toward the time when Cross and the 51 other House Republicans become direct players in budget negotiations. The Senate has enough Democrats to pass a budget without Republican votes after May 31, but the House does not.
"We know what the Republicans want," Nix said. "They've already said it last week -- deep cuts to education, deep cuts to health care."
Cross said Blagojevich's office was resorting to "scare tactics."
"We're not interested in cutting," Cross said. "We believe you can balance the budget and force us to live within our means without raising taxes."
House Republicans estimate state revenues will grow by about $720 million in fiscal 2008 from economic expansion. They propose giving a $200 million increase to education -- far less than the $1.5 billion boost sought by Blagojevich -- and also would use money to make state pension payments. The proceeds from the expansion of existing casinos would be used to finance a $5 billion construction bond issue.
Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.