Thursday, May 04, 2006

Interesting 45 minutes

There was a lot of hurry up and wait in the Capitol Thursday, as lawmakers tried to smooth out wrinkles in the pending budget. But one 45-minute scene from the Senate chambers was particularly telling about the whacky day, which got even better shortly before 5 p.m. when the House adjourned for the summer.

Picture this: Around 3 p.m., students sat in the Senate gallery overlooking the Senate floor. The words they heard probably didn’t mean much to them, and the people they saw buzz below probably didn’t seem peculiar to them. Little did they know …

What they heard: They heard the words, “horse racing,” “tax,” “river boats,” and “10th license.” All of that had to do with a bill involved in tying up the budget. What the senators were voting on – and ultimately passed – was to shave off 3 percent of casino profits to help the struggling horse racing industry stay afloat (horse tracks were supposed to get 15 percent of the gross profits of the state’s 10th casino, but that 10th license has been tied up in legal battles and sitting dormant). The newest measure took three tries to get approved by the House, and it allegedly only passed in the Senate this time around because a late amendment added a two-year sunset. The Democratic lawmakers who opposed the 3 percent tax said any excess casino profits should go into the state’s main checkbook, not be used to help a private, ailing industry. The opposition also didn’t like that the horse tracks would stand to further profit from casinos when a dormant, 10th riverboat license escaped from legal peril. The House later passed the same version of the bill, sending it to the governor.

What they saw: This is where it gets even more indicative of a budget agreement and the end of session. In the midst of the horse racing debate, Latino Caucus members huddled, a few here, a few there. What was telling was that one member, Sen. Miguel del Valle, was not on the floor. He was reportedly in the governor’s office negotiating a few sticky points in the budget. As we told you before, the Latino Caucus (mostly the Senate members) was unhappy with the budget and had enough votes to prevent the budget from passing. Then House Speaker Michael Madigan appeared (he leads the House chamber, not the Senate). Madigan worked his way around the Senate chamber and talked to a few Latino Caucus members along with some others. He listened to them, nodded, and patted some on the back before moving on to the next person. He left, but not before Sen. Minority Leader Frank Watson stood in line to talk to the speaker. That would have been one of the only times he truly met with the speaker face to face during budget talks. Neither he nor House Minority Leader Tom Cross has been invited to the closed-door meetings with Democratic leaders and the governor.

Little did the students in the balcony realize that they were watching the highly anticipated closing moments of the spring session. They unknowingly saw energy build around how the state makes money, shifts money and negotiates how to spend that money. Welcome to government and politics in Illinois, kids.

The Senate could vote on the budget tonight. Stay tuned.

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