Thursday, May 31, 2007

The clock’s ticking, but the hands aren’t moving

About two hours before the midnight deadline for the regularly scheduled spring session, Republicans called a caucus just as the Senate was about to vote on a multi-billion proposal to create four Chicago-area casinos. Stay tuned.

About three hours before the midnight deadline, the House left for the night without acting on a legislative motion filed to stall the budget that won approval last night. The budget is just sitting there as a leveraging point for downstate lawmakers who don’t want to adjourn for the summer without addressing high electricity rates.

The House inaction spoiled Senate plans to vote on that minimum-growth budget in committee tonight. With no budget to vote on, Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, committee chairman and Evanston Democrat, couldn’t help cracking a few jokes about presenting and debating a bill that didn’t exist in his chamber yet. “This is all conceptual,” he said motioning his hands around an imaginary ball.

On a more serious note, Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and budget negotiator, said the House budget is a “great start,” but it’s not balanced. And he’s disappointed the Democratic-controlled House, Senate and governor’s office missed opportunities — such as leasing the Illinois Lottery or expanding gaming — to make a dent in the drastically under-funded state employee pension system while also bolstering education and health care funding. “What this is lacking is a real revenue stream to pay for the needs of this state,” Trotter said. “I’m always disappointed that we weren’t able to finish the work when we felt that it was supposed to be done. But we also know that by constitution, we have 30 more days to get that job done.” They have all of June before the next state budget kicks in July 1.

Gaming is the answer for some Senate Democrats. “We have to have revenue before we can start putting a budget together,” said Sen. James Clayborne of Belleville earlier Thursday night. He’s sponsoring the legislation to create the new casinos that’s about to be voted on in his chamber, and although he said he expects the expansion of gaming to be difficult for some legislators to vote on, he said, “When we call it, we will have the votes to pass the bill.”

As for the electricity rates that caused the House budget to stall in the first place, Democratic Rep. John Bradley of Marion said it’s a good sign because it shows lawmakers aren’t leaving for the summer without addressing the sky-high rates. After the House finished business about 1:30 a.m. Thursday, he showed up at the Capitol at 7 a.m. for more negotiations with Ameren Illinois and ComEd utilities and a group of lawmakers from both chambers. Then again, they’ve been negotiating since last September.

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