Friday, April 20, 2007

This week at the state Capitol

This week’s events provided little evidence of how things will play out before the state legislature reaches its constitutional deadline of May 31, but some Statehouse scenes throughout the week could hint at the status of the governor’s policy proposals (education, health care and a tax overhaul) and high electricity rates.

Education committee: well organized
There was an obvious elephant in the room when a Senate committee held a hearing about the governor’s education plan. The Senate Democrats gave a nice advanced notice about the hearing with a printed list of witnesses to testify, printed testimonies available to the press and everything. All testified in support of the educational policy side, but the committee chair intended to keep discussions from bleeding into the more controversial funding source, the gross receipts tax. Meanwhile, most of the room was packed with people who opposed the new business tax, and they got rowdy when Senate President Emil Jones Jr. tried to say the gross receipts tax was the most fair way of actively doing something about education reform. However, as hard as the administration tries to portray a positive message about the tax and education plan, the fear of the unknown in the GRT really does create skeptics among legislative members of both parties.

Health care committee: We want details
Deanese Williams-Harris contributed this portion
Senators want to see the rules to the governor’s new subsidized insurance plan in writing.

“You’re asking us to raise $2.1 billion in taxes for a plan we can’t identify,” said Sen. Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline. “If I don't know the rules, I can’t vote for it.”

Larry Barry, president of the Illinois Life Insurance Council, agreed, calling the initiative generic in nature. “Put in the bill what you want done. That’s all I’m asking,” he said. He also voiced concern that insurance companies would have to wait for the state to reimburse them for insuring people who were subsidized by the state, but the legislators would have to approve money in the next state budget for those reimbursements to be possible.

The gross receipts tax also would be the main funding source for Illinois Covered. “What happens if [GRT] fails?” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican.

“GRT is a comprehensive package,” responded Anne Marie Murphy, Medicaid director and the governor’s health care policy advisor. “We have to see all of these [proposals] as a package.” She also said the rules would be put in writing before the measure is called for a vote.

Tax overhaul: Jones vs. Meeks
President Emil Jones and Sen. James Meeks didn’t exactly whisper when they were going back and forth about the gross receipts tax as a Senate committee heard testimony. At one point, Jones leaned back in his chair towards Meeks, who was sitting behind him, and said, “We are for the gross receipts tax, not taxing individuals.” Meeks is sponsoring alternative tax reform that would raise income and sales taxes and is designed to relieve property taxes. The measure, House Bill and Senate Bill 750, has potential to take some Democratic and Republican votes away from the governor’s gross receipts tax supported by the Senate president. Considering Meeks played chicken with the governor this summer by threatening a gubernatorial run if Blagojevich didn’t promise significantly more money for education, it’s safe to say Meeks has used his political leverage before.

Electricity rates: Procedural maneuvering
The full Senate approved a one-year rate freeze for downstate Ameren Illinois electricity customers, but they excluded Commonwealth Edison that serves northern Illinois. Procedural maneuvering allowed Senate members to cast a vote to include ComEd knowing full well it wouldn’t make it into the final legislation. Sponsor Sen. Gary Forby got a political slap in the face. The Benton Democrat has gotten a lot of angry phone calls from his southern Illinois constituents who really can’t afford their electricity bills, but he worked hard to get ComEd’s northern Illinois customers in the freeze, too. After ComEd was stripped from the legislation, Forby said he was completely surprised and disappointed. In fact, as many angered Democrats and Republicans pointed out during floor debate, the bill is expected to go to the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan is likely to favor a freeze that includes ComEd. Adding an amendment to include ComEd also would give House members a chance to go on the record as supporting a comprehensive freeze. The amended measure would then be sent back to the Senate (because both chambers have to approve the exact same wording before it’s sent to the governor), but the Emil Jones is unlikely to allow a freeze to impact ComEd, a large supporter of the Senate president. Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, called it a “premeditated, parliamentary scheme.” Sen. Dale Risinger of Peoria told the chamber he wanted to go home and shower.

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