Illinois AG pushes back on budget

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Attorney General Lisa Madigan is pushing back against the governor’s call for deeper budget cuts, saying her office’s ability to generate money for taxpayers is already being threatened by low pay and low morale that make it

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Attorney General Lisa Madigan is pushing back against the governor’s call for deeper budget cuts, saying her office’s ability to generate money for taxpayers is already being threatened by low pay and low morale that make it hard to retain her top lawyers.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Madigan said her office is "starting to deteriorate." Further cuts would mean a reduction in the amount of money the office can bring in from lawsuits and other legal work, she warned.

The attorney general’s office produced $908 million last year — nearly $30 for every $1 in tax money it spent, she said.

"We’re bringing in revenue for the state. We want to continue bringing in revenue," Madigan said. "I can’t do that if I don’t have lawyers."

The office gets less money today from taxpayers than it did in 1998, she said. Her lawyers haven’t had raises since 2006. One-third of them have retired or left for better jobs, often with other state agencies, in just the past two years.

"Morale is terribly low in the office, and people are voting with their feet," said Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.

Madigan’s argument against further cuts is a high-profile version of the pleas being made by countless interest groups, state employees and people who depend on state services and want to avoid cuts proposed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. All have their stories of hardship and their lists of reasons legislators should spare them when writing the budget.

Madigan could find some sympathetic ears in the General Assembly, where her father is speaker of the House.

Sen. Pamela Althoff, the top Republican on one of the Senate’s appropriations committees, pointed out that the attorney general’s budget was cut deeply several years ago and has never recovered. "She’s not even coming from a level playing field," said Althoff, of McHenry.

Her arguments carried less weight with Rep. David Reis, who serves on a House appropriations committee. The Willow Hill Republican expects every agency and program to argue they should be spared. Some, like Madigan, will point to the money they bring in, he said. Others will focus on how they help the economy or protect the public.

"You’re going to hear from everybody this year about how important their stuff is," Reis said.

Quinn wants all statewide officials to cut spending by 9 percent in the coming year to help reduce the state’s massive deficit.

Among statewide officials, only the lieutenant governor, who is part of the Quinn administration, has embraced the idea. The comptroller and treasurer say they’ll try to hit the target. The secretary of state and attorney general say they’re looking at whether it’s possible.

In her most direct response to date, Madigan said the cuts would threaten the revenue her office generates, which total more than $7.9 billion since she took office. She’s also backing legislation that would help the state go after retailers, particularly gas station operators, who don’t pay their full sales taxes. That could generate tens of millions of dollars more, she said.

Madigan said her office is losing experienced lawyers, leaving behind mostly young attorneys straight out of law school. The starting salary for a lawyer at the attorney general’s office is $50,500, which is lower than starting salaries with the Cook County state’s attorney, the city of Chicago and the DuPage County state’s attorney, Madigan’s aides said.

In some cases, the attorneys are leaving for much higher salaries working for Quinn and his agencies, Madigan said.

Her aides said one lawyer making $50,500 in the attorney general’s office jumped to the Department of Children and Family Services for a raise of more than $27,000, or 54 percent. Another making $52,000 got a raise of $33,000, or 63 percent, to handle workers’ compensation in the Quinn administration.

Quinn’s office had no comment, other than to note that Madigan may be getting less in general tax revenue than she did in 2008, but her overall spending is up.

Madigan’s budget this year is $30.7 million in general funds, compared to $33.9 million in fiscal 1998. But when other sources of money are included, such as revenue from lawsuits, the office’s budget for the current year is $74.6 million, versus $44.5 million in 1998. Madigan’s aides note the money from special sources comes with many strings attached and can’t be used for the everyday costs of running the office.

Quinn, also a Chicago Democrat, presents his call for budget-cutting by statewide officials as a choice between bureaucrats and schoolchildren, between cutting money for government administration and cutting money for vital services.

Another appropriations leader, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said it’s not that simple because Madigan’s office raises huge amounts of money.

"If that leaves the system, do we have to plug it with general revenue funds and what does that do to the rest of the budget?" Harris said. ‘Those are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

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