Thursday, May 31, 2007

What's left?

The news Wednesday night seemed to be when the House approved a limited-growth budget that mirrors this year’s fiscal budget with some changes, but that’s predictable. It was approved along partisan lines with one Democrat, Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, voting against it. And earlier in the night, a Senate committee approved a three-year freeze on electricity rates and approved four new casinos as a revenue source for education, construction projects and higher education.

But as the night got weirder, it became clear the real story was whether the two chambers would come together to agree on all this “major” legislation bouncing around the Capitol.

By 9:30 p.m., the Sen. Debbie Halvorson said the full Senate has enough votes to approve the three-year rate freeze that’s already been approved by the House. If it gained approval by the full Senate Thursday, it would land on the governor’s desk. But, Halvorson pointed out in debate, there’s no guarantee it would actually spell relief for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers. “You know how easy it will be to go back home and say, ‘I voted for a freeze. You may never see anything, but I voted for that freeze,’” Halvorson said. “I’m not sure if I can sleep at night if I go home and say, ‘I voted for a freeze, but now they’re going to get a temporary restraining order. They’re going to get an injunction. You’re not going to get a freeze ever.’ How can I sleep at night knowing full well that our responsibility is to maintain our promise?”

In the House, floor action lasted until 1:15 a.m. Democrats approved a) $300 million in revenue by ending some corporate tax breaks, b) a supplemental budget to finally clear a four-year waiting list of school construction projects and implement the second year of a federal program to reimburse hospitals caring for Medicaid patients and c) the so-called “7 percent” rule to relieve Cook County property taxpayers.

What’s left for the House to do before adjourning this week? The House plans to advance a telecommunications bill I mentioned May 29. It would allow AT&T and Verizon telephone giants to compete with cable companies in the race to provide high-tech video services anywhere in the state. Stem cell research still hasn’t been addressed. And a group of lawmakers from both chambers is still trying to relieve constituents’ electricity rates. They joined heads late, and I mean late, Wednesday night. We’ll wait to find out if they agreed on similar language that has a chance in both chambers or if they’re efforts are going to fizzle once again.

Until we can get more details and reaction Thursday, here’s a simple breakdown of the limited-growth budget approved by the House:
A few highlights
- The minimum amount spent per student increases by $387, which is an 8 percent increase over FY07 and puts the minimum at $5,721 per student.
- Early childhood education would receive $30 million.
- Each school district would receive at least as much as it did in FY07.
- State universities would get a 2 percent increase.
“While it may not be as much as some had hoped for, it’s certainly a healthy increase,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, the Litchfield Democrat sponsoring the budget proposal. “It’s certainly something that will allow our K-through-12 institutions to move forward.” He later added, ‘We’ve seen the difficulty we’ve had this year in trying to find additional revenues. I would argue that this is the best that we can do at this revenue level.”

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