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Lawmakers push to spend $900 million

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 9:43 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — State lawmakers are looking at spending more than $900 million to build roads, protect patients from bad doctors and investigate child abuse under legislation that started making its way through the General Assembly on Monday.

The state's financial situation remains poor, but the additional spending is viewed as a way to tweak the budget approved last May. A few million dollars would come from higher fees on doctors to cover the costs of the agency that disciplines wayward physicians, a program just recently beefed up following years of lax oversight. Another $53 million would cover the costs of child welfare programs and other state agency operations from money freed up largely because Gov. Pat Quinn closed some prisons and other state sites.

The bulk of the money — $713 million in road construction and capital projects — is available from a series of sources, including new infusions from the federal government and better-than-expected tax revenue going into the state's road fund.

The legislation cleared the House Executive Committee as part of a package Quinn and lawmakers want to approve quickly. A separate bill would officially schedule the governor's budget address on March 6, two weeks later than the time set by law.

The plan to raise the amount doctors pay to fund state oversight and discipline in their profession would increase fees charged every three years from $300 to $750 under legislation sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

State funds to pay for routine matters of licensing, as well as the broader oversight and discipline of doctors, have run dry, causing the staff to drop from 26 to eight and creating a huge backlog of cases that Currie said is "continuing to grow." The last time the fee was raised was 1987, she said.

The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, under fire in the past for not doing enough to protect patients from bad doctors, said the cutbacks caused by a multimillion-dollar shortfall would push the time it takes to issue or renew physician licenses from 12 to 18 months, officials said. "The problem is dire," said Manny Flores, the agency's director.

The Illinois State Medical Society agreed that there should be a fee increase, but maintained that the hike was too high.

Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein, sided with the medical group that is a big political giver to Republicans, saying the proposed fee hike was "onerous."

But Currie said adequate discipline cannot be meted out in the occasional cases where necessary "without adequate staff."

In another bill Currie sponsored, nearly $25 million would go to the Department of Children and Family Services. The agency's budget had been reduced by nearly $90 million.

The increase would allow the agency to avoid deep layoffs that had threatened Director Richard Calica's reorganization plan, agency spokesman Dave Clarkin said. The ongoing child welfare department shuffle includes shoring up the critical frontline with 138 additional child-protection investigators, reducing middle-management positions and deploying recruitment specialists across the state to help move children more quickly out of the foster care system and into permanent homes.

The Tribune has reported staggering DCFS worker caseloads, overdue investigations, a clogged child abuse hot line, untimely day care inspections and troubling child deaths that raised questions about whether more could have been done to intervene.

Another $12 million would be set aside for mental health programs, Currie said.

Under the proposal, Chicago State University would get $307,000 to restore money Currie said was inadvertently cut from its pharmacy program and several million dollars for emergency electrical repairs at the campus.

The additional road construction money is partly from a new federal formula that generates more money for Illinois, said Ann Schneider, state transportation secretary.

Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, was skeptical, saying he chaired a separate panel overseeing road fund money and wasn't told there was extra money out there.

"I still have a problem with this bill and with the last-minute, the 12th-hour funding resources that are popping up somewhere," Arroyo said.

Lawmakers are still fine-tuning the proposal and could add more than $500 million for group health-care programs. That's money lawmakers set aside last spring but did not appropriate in hopes that efficiencies would drive down costs. The savings didn't happen, and lawmakers are moving forward with the spending, Currie said.

Tribune reporter Christy Gutowski contributed.

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