Friday, June 29, 2007

Surprise: Special session


To the surprise of all four legislative leaders, the governor has called a special session scheduled to begin July 5th. Though the leaders came to an earlier agreement that both chambers would take next week off to celebrate the July 4th holiday, the governor said it would be more patriotic to spend the holiday week working on a budget.

“Now it’s time for us to get the real business of the people done,” he said. “It’s time for us to finish a budget that isn’t just a one-month, stopgap emergency budget.”

He said legislators will meet every day, including weekends, until they can agree on a budget that addresses unfunded pension liability, education funding and health care. He went on to say that the emergency budget was necessary to keep the government running; however, “It’s just a Republican budget in disguise.”

He also called Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, “the conservative Republican ally” of House Speaker Michael Madigan, quoting comments that they wouldn’t support any new revenue.

Ending his meeting with the media, the governor did promise to sign the temporary budget that won the approval of both chambers. Needless to say, leaders were shocked a new schedule was dropped on them at the last minute, but they were willing to work.

Now that there’s a special session, legislators will receive a per diem to cover the cost of their stay in Springfield. “We call it a teacher a day,” Watson said. “$40,000 is about what you spend on a special session.”

The governor’s last words were the legislators could forfeit their per diem if they were worried about keeping costs down.

"Things are really in the toilet at work"

I thought Sen. Donne Trotter of Chicago was ad-libbing when the Senate was about to approve an emergency, one-month budget Friday morning, but he wasn’t. On the Senate floor, he read his actual horoscope published in today’s Chicago Sun-Times:

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): … “You can’t expect things to run smoothly right now. There are glitches, delays, confused communications and short tempers. Things are really in the toilet at work. Just take it all one minute at a time. That’s all you can ever do anyway.”

Everyone cracked up, not just because Trotter said “toilet” on the Senate floor, but because the horoscope couldn’t paint a more accurate picture of the “glitches, delays, confused communications and short tempers” that plague the four legislative leaders and the governor in their drawn out process of crafting an FY08 budget. They were supposed to have one in place by May 31.

Senate Republicans made sure to highlight leadership problems during floor debate. Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, said there’s only one difference between the “personality politics” in today’s one-party, Democratic rule and the one-party, Republican rule in 1994: “We had an engaged governor in Jim Edgar, who was here every day, who managed state government well.”

Dillard served as Edgar’s chief of staff. Dillard continued, “We don’t need to pass a resolution like the House did to remind the governor that he needs to be in Springfield working with our four legislative leaders, especially the two gentlemen from his own political party.” But Dillard voted in favor of the emergency budget to prevent state services and payrolls from shutting down because no budget was in place before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Freshman Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, told his fellow senators that the budget-setting process has been an “utter embarrassment” and that they should take a stronger stance. “You should oppose this bill and force the leaders out of their entrenched corners, into the middle where common ground can be reached. Extending this one month does nothing more than provide cover for the people who need to check their egos at the door and get something done for the people of the state of Illinois on a long-term basis.”

He voted to reject the one-month budget with five other Republican senators: Bill Brady of Bloomington, Dan Cronin of Elmhurst, Randy Hultgren of Winfield, Carole Pankau of Roselle and Dave Syverson of Rockford.

The only Democrat to vote against the measure was Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago. He said he wouldn’t vote for a budget that fails to fund school construction and mass transportation but that continues to pay chauffeurs who drive department heads to meetings and pilots who fly the governor between Chicago and Springfield. “We have condoned his behavior,” Sandoval said. “You will have financed the friendly skies of Illinois that Gov. Rod Balgojevich flies day in and day out in the month of July.”

Then he spoke directly to Senate President Emil Jones Jr. “President Jones, I know you don’t like this budget. I see it in your eyes. I see it in the tone and the texture of your face. And you know what, President Jones, I don’t either … I cannot and will not support this or any other no-growth budget that perpetuates the ongoing government shutdowns of the status quo in my community and in other communities from Cairo to Chicago. No schools, no buses, no tax relief, no growth, no vote. Have a great Fourth of July and keep on fighting.”

Both chambers are scheduled to come back to Springfield Tuesday, July 10, starting another full month of overtime session. (The Senate’s schedule isn’t online, yet, but they’re in session every weekday starting July 10, including the last Saturday and Sunday in July).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Moving right along, for now

It only took eight minutes for a Senate committee to discuss and approve the one-month budget that’s expected to prevent the state from shutting down in July. No one on the committee voted against the stopgap measure. The full Senate is expected to approve it Friday.

Although a 12-month budget is far from a done deal, Sen. Christine Radogno, a GOP budget negotiator, said she felt encouraged by the one-month budget because 1) it fully funds pension payments at the statutory level, 2) it fully funds state debt service, 3) it’s void of “pork barrel” funding for legislators’ pet projects and 4) it holds the line on spending. She says those four things prove “we can live within our means even if it’s one month at a time.”

Let’s hope it won’t take a month at a time to keep the state in business, but one ominous sign is that the Senate extended all deadlines for the passage of bills until December 31. Sheesh. That’s extremely cautious and totally unnecessary, right? Right?!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

House approves a stopgap measure

The House has now passed two budgets, the first, of course, held hostage until electric rate relief is figured out with utilities. The one-month budget approved by the House this evening keeps the 2007 level of funding for most state operations, except pension and debt payments are a bit higher to meet the prescribed fiscal year 2008 levels.

“If we don’t take some action to authorize the comptroller to continue paying bills, starting Monday when that office opens up, the state will slowly begin to grind to a halt,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, the Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator, during a House committee earlier Wednesday. “So the four leaders and the governor were able to come to an agreement, at least on this issue, on a method to keep state government open for an additional 31 days.”

House Republican Leader Tom Cross used the one-month budget as an opportunity to blame Democrats, who control both chambers and all state executive offices, for still being unable to draft an agreed budget a month after the constitutional deadline. “All 67 of you, on your side of the aisle, all 67 of you are responsible for the failure of not passing a budget in time for the people of the state of Illinois,” he said during House floor debate this evening. He added all state lawmakers have to accept the state has less than $800 million in new revenue to balance the budget, and they can’t get everything they want.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat Woodstock who frequently clashes with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, said the temporary budget simply defers tough choices. He was one of three representatives, the others Republicans, to reject the emergency budget.

Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, said the next pressure point is August, when the state has to make its first payments of fiscal year ’08 to elementary and secondary education systems. He said he and other Republicans would approve the one-month budget as a stopgap measure to keep the state operating through July, but he added, “Don’t count on it in August.”

If all goes as planned, the measure moves to the Senate right away so that chamber can abide by the rules and read it on three different days before approving it and sending it to the governor Friday, the last business day of fiscal year ’07.

State rep. reenlists in the Reserves

A lasting sense of duty moved State Rep. Jim Watson, a Jacksonville Republican, to reenlist in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.

He says he increasingly felt the need to do more as his former civil service unit based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., was called to its third tour of duty in the Middle East. “I don’t think we can sit back and let the same guys carry the water over and over and over,” he says.

He’s committed to one year. Starting in July, he’ll attend drill one weekend a month at Camp Pendleton. He served as a U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves from 1985 to 1991, including one year in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. If his unit were mobilized back to the Middle East, he says he would be in a combat environment teaching local officials how to run their government, setting up the hospitals or trying to rebuild the infrastructure for an education system.

In the rare event that an Illinois lawmaker would go to war while serving the state, Watson says his constituent services would continue with the help of his fellow lawmakers, Sen. Deanna Demuzio, a Carlinville Democrat, and Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat.

He says his inner belief in the importance of the overseas effort leads him to rejoin the other service men and women making sacrifices and offering their skills in a time of need. “If we don’t clean this thing up, we’re going to leave just one more mess for future generations, for my kids, to deal with,” he says.

He’s been serving as state legislator since 2001.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One-month budget by Friday

Whatever needed to be worked out among the Republican and Democratic caucuses of each chamber appears to be worked out. At least, there’s enough of an agreement for the legislative leaders to publicly say that the House is expected to approve it Wednesday and the Senate to consider it Friday.

The summary from House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross: It’s a maintenance budget that simply extends the fiscal year 2007 budget with some changes. But it has no new revenue and no “member initiatives,” or “pork barrel spending” that pays for special projects in legislators’ districts.

Next on the discussion table: new revenue to support a full, 12-month state budget. “We haven’t had a discussion on available revenue,” Cross said outside of the governor’s Capitol office Tuesday afternoon, “and we had no discussion about electricity.”

Electric rate freeze action is still possible in the next couple of days — Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said he’s just about fed up. “I resent all the stalling that’s been taking place as it relates to those negotiations,” he said after budget talks. “We may, even though I’m opposed to it, let them go ahead and have the freeze.”

He said he could call the measure as early as Wednesday once he talks to his members. He added that after several meetings to discuss rate relief, the people who advocated for extending a 10-year rate freeze that expired in January are suddenly starting to change their minds. “Now they’re saying exactly what I’ve been telling them all along: The freeze does not solve the problem,” Jones said. “But now they’re throwing different things into play, so therefore, maybe I’ll go ahead and let [Sen. Gary Forby] call the freeze. I’ll find out tomorrow.”

- The House is expected to vote on the one-month budget Wednesday, adjourn Friday and come back for more overtime session the second week of July.
- The Senate will get the budget and have to follow the rules to hear it three times before they can consider it for good on Friday.
- Senate President Emil Jones may let his chamber debate an electricity rate freeze, depending on how his caucus feels about it Wednesday morning.
- The next leaders’ meeting, whenever it’s scheduled, could likely talk about revenue ideas.

Rep. Froehlich changes from an R to a D
State Rep. Paul Froehlich of Schaumburg will join the Democrats Wednesday after considering himself a “lifelong Republican,” according to a press release. He served as Schaumburg Township Republican Committeeman since 1998, so he’s also resigning from that panel.

“I became a Republican because the party permitted a broad range of views and welcomed moderates with open arms,” he said in the release. “Over the last six years, that has changed. I, however, have not. The same beliefs I held last week, I hold today.” He said he thought he could best serve his constituents as a Democrat, and his constituents in the northwest suburbs of Chicago are leaning more Democratic these days.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he’s unhappy about Froehlich’s switch, but there’s nothing he can do about it. “This is a guy that decided that he wanted to do what was best for him, unfortunately at the expense, perhaps, of his constituents,” Cross said before entering the governor’s office for budget talks Tuesday. “I’m not going to comment on what he did or didn’t do. I think he did what was best for his own political future.”

After budget talks, Cross said he’s likely to target Froehlich in the fall election campaigns, “just like I will in all the races where I think that we have a chance, and clearly I think we have a chance there. He will be on a list with others [where] we think we can have success in the fall of ’08.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan said he did not recruit Froehlich, who supported another Schaumburg official, now state Rep. Fred Crespo. He won a seat on a local board with Republican support but ran as a Democrat to win a House district seat last fall.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Q&A: Alan Ehrehnalt

The executive editor of Governing, a monthly magazine that covers state and local government and is published by Congressional Quarterly, since 1991. Ehrenhalt has nearly 40 years of journalism experience ranging from working as a Chicago reporter for The Associated Press to writing three books: The Lost City, the United States of Ambition and Democracy in the Mirror. He’s also a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World, as well as the Wall Street Journal.

He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from the University of Chicago High School. He earned his bachelor’s in psychology from Brandeis University and his master’s in journalism from Columbia University. He became a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University and had a few academic appointments before his current position as senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

He presented “The States in the 21st Century” for a forum on state government and citizen participation hosted by the University of Illinois at Springfield June 20 and sponsored by the Center for State Policy and Leadership, the College of Public Affairs and Administration and Public Radio WUIS 91.9 FM.

The Center’s Richard Schuldt, director of the Survey Research Office of the Center for State Policy and Leadership, presented results of a recent project, “Citizen Views of State Government: New Survey Findings from Illinois,” showing Illinoisans’ general dissatisfaction with their state government and their own participation in policy issues important to them.

Maybe the reason is Illinois isn’t even covering the basics, while other states are coming up with public policy innovations. Ehrenhalt shared his thoughts about Illinois compared to other states during a phone interview with Bethany Carson June 21. This is an edited version of that conversation:

Q: What makes Illinois’ fiscal situation one of the worst in the nation?
A: No. 1, Illinois has not handled its [public employee] pension responsibilities very well. As has been documented before, Illinois has chosen to have fairly generous pensions but not to fund them in an actuarially sound way. And the Government Accounting Standards Board is now requiring a much more thorough accounting of future, not only pension, but other retiree benefits. And when those numbers come in, some states are really showing to be doing badly. New Jersey is the other one that’s been very irresponsible.

Also, Illinois has had worse Medicaid problems than other states. And I’m not sure entirely what’s behind that, but Illinois for the last 20 years has been in more trouble in Medicaid than almost any other state.

Q: How bad compared to other states?
A: It’s hard to quantify, but on Medicaid, I only know that Illinois’ problems are among the most serious. And on pension liabilities, Illinois is in as serious trouble as any other states, maybe more. New Jersey would be the other one.

You know, this is what brought the city of San Diego down a couple of years ago. They were granting public unions generous pensions, and then they were not funding them because the debts were in the future. And they thought they could get away with it.

It is a technique that a couple of states have resorted to. And [Gov. Rod] Blagojevich did this. You borrow money against future assets in order to meet your immediate needs and not worry about what happens when the balloon payment has to be made. Christine Todd Whitman did that in New Jersey.

Q: If you’re borrowing money now and not worrying about the balloon payments later because it will be in another administration, what does that suggest?
A: It suggests bad leadership. It suggests perhaps attention deficit disorder, or worse, it suggests an attempt to push the problems off on somebody else. Let’s face it. We all like to do that. We all like to live well today and let somebody else worry about it tomorrow, but when a state consistently does that, that’s not good.

What it requires to deal with these problems is a strong governor and a legislature willing to work with him. Normally that means one party, but here you have one party and it isn’t doing any good. Sometimes it doesn’t mean that. California and Florida, and I would also say Pennsylvania, are examples of states where strong governors have been able to reach out to the other party and solve some problems, not to say California doesn’t still have serious pension problems. But it has a working majority. The irony is that it’s the governor and the Democratic Party, and the governor’s own Republican Party is essentially shut out.

Q: Our problems have compounded over many years, but how much does the leadership by the governor and the legislative leaders contribute to our current budget situation? Is it a symptom of a bigger problem?
A: It’s a symptom of a problem that, like many other structural deficit problem, festers, and if it’s not attended to, becomes acute. And I think that is what Illinois needs to worry about.

He asked why Blagojevich proposed the gross receipts tax. I said the governor promised in his campaigns not to raise income or sales taxes, pinning himself in a corner.

A: That gets to the problems that lots of governors have, making promises in their campaigns that tie them up later. The more prudent governors don’t promise things that they can’t deliver on or don’t promise things that make it difficult for them to accomplish their agendas.

Putting Illinois’ finances in order would be as great an accomplishment if not greater than passage of some of the programs that Blagojevich would like to pass. And since they’re not passing anyway, it would make a great deal of sense to deal with the structural budget gaps.

Mark Warner [a Democrat] did it in Virginia with Republican help. They had a rather serious fiscal crisis brought on by the previous governor’s campaign promise to eliminate the tax on automobiles. Warner came in, and Virginia really did have a serious structural problem. He split the Republicans, formed a coalition of moderate Republicans and his own Democratic Party and got the tax reform plan that he wanted. And the state’s in much better shape now. So it’s not impossible. It’s more difficult in some places than others.

I think a lot of it is it makes a big difference in whom you elect and re-elect. Unfortunately [in Illinois], the Democrats coming in after 26 years out of power elected a good campaigner who really didn’t have a very sustained interest in governing and in many ways showed contempt for the legislature rather than working with them.

Q: Is there anything that you think makes Illinois unique?
A: To the extent that states have been a source of innovation and creativity in the last 20 years, Illinois has not really participated in that to the extent that you would think it might. You think about welfare, Tommy Thompson; reorganizing government, John Engler in Michigan; Schwarzenegger and environmental issues; Eliot Spitzer in New York as attorney general, but nevertheless, really changing the role of the attorney general. And I can name others. In Illinois, I suppose most people would say that you would have to go back to Jim Thompson to find a governor and a legislature working together and providing some innovative government.

Although, George Ryan’s Build Illinois was a rather ambitious program. I certainly would give Ryan credit for that. If you throw out the scandal, you could make a decent case that he was a good governor.

Q: It’s interesting to think about how the current governor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, will be perceived down the road.
A: If things don’t change, I would say not very well.

As Ehrenhalt and I talked, the governor and the top four legislative leaders, Republicans and Democrats, were negotiating a one-month budget in hopes of buying some time to come up with a 12-month spending plan. We’ll know next week whether that will happen to prevent a shutdown of state services when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

We're in business for one more month

Budget staffs of all four Democratic and Republican leaders and the governor’s office are working throughout the weekend to craft a one-month budget, potentially avoiding a state government shutdown when the new fiscal year starts July 1. They did the same thing in 2004. It also buys some time for the leaders to agree on a full, 12-month budget.

“Today, we actually made a little bit of progress,” said Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in person, in front of his Statehouse office, standing next to Senate President Emil Jones Jr. “We actually finally agreed on something, and the agreement was that we have a lot of work to do.”

But he still bashed House Speaker Michael Madigan’s limited-growth budget approved by his chamber last month, which the governor said is now dead because a majority of Senators rejected it in a non-binding resolution Wednesday. And nearly two-dozen House Democrats signed a letter to indicate that they were willing to negotiate on Madigan’s budget, too.

Blagojevich said, “We’re back to square one,” and quoted Winston Churchill. “This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning. And it is a new opportunity to begin anew and begin fresh.”

He might even be willing to talk about a budget that wouldn’t rely on a gross receipts tax for major revenue, according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson after the budget meeting. “He didn’t say it is off the table, but he said we’re going to proceed ahead without the gross receipts tax,” Watson said. “I think that’s a significant step for him.” Watson also said, “I think we made progress today, first time, that we really kind of talked about a budget that might have some light at the end of the tunnel.”

The leaders aren’t exactly holding hands and singing “Cum Ba Ya,” however. Madigan said there’s “a five-way agreement in concept” to enact a temporary budget, but “there are items to be negotiated.”

Hey, it’s a start. And FYI, when the leaders went around the room to state their priorities for this “clean slate” budget, here’s what they reportedly said:
Blagojevich — affordable health insurance for all
Jones — education
Madigan — a “workable” budget
Watson — to “live within in our means and pay our bills”
Cross — unfunded pension liability and an infrastructure program

The chambers are out until Tuesday, when we hope to see more progress!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What is on the table?

The Senate approved a nonbinding resolution to reject the House’s limited-growth budget approved late last month. It mirrored the move earlier this spring by the House to shoot down the governor’s gross receipt tax proposal.

Thirty-four Senate members voted to reject the House budget; 19 voted “in favor” of it or, at least, against using a resolution to combat the other chamber; and two voted present. (The record only shows 33 “yes” votes, but Sen. Kimberly Lightford did vote “yes,” making the 34th vote.)

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat, called for the resolution, urging his chamber not to consider House Speaker Michael Madigan’s budget. “Overall, SB 1132 as amended by the House does not provide the resources necessary to serve the citizens of Illinois, including students, veterans and all citizens served by a public safety program and agencies.”

GOP budget negotiator Sen. Christine Radogno questioned the sincerity of the Senate Democrats to come to a budget agreement. The Lemont Republican wanted to know why Trotter wasn’t using three empty budget bills that were approved by a Senate committee last week. They’re essentially placeholders so the chamber can drop in budget details later and move it through the legislative process.

“We’re wasting a lot of time on a resolution that’s absolutely meaningless in terms of resolving this [budget] process, ultimately,” she said. “We’re wasting time by being here. We’re wasting a lot of money. We’re continuing with the scam of the leaders’ meetings that are really not producing any results whatsoever, and now we’re trying to enter into this game of bouncing resolutions back and forth between the chambers.”

For others, voting to reject the House budget was taking a stand against cutting programs for children, veterans and the needy. “What would you have us to do? Just lay down for Mike Madigan?” said Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat. “We’re not a rubber stamp for the other chamber. We are the upper chamber. We’re the House of Lords. They’re the House of Commons. We shall not be led by the House of Commons.”

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. also sent a message to the House. “The purpose of this resolution is to send a clear signal that we should be in very serious, serious negotiations,” he said.

The limited-growth budget never made it over to the Senate for a vote because of an electric-rate standoff started by a group of Downstate House Dems. The move was meant to call attention to the need to address the electric-rate hikes before the onset of the summer.

While the House didn’t respond too kindly to the Senate’s comments, Gov. Rod Blagojevich praised the resolution.

Big picture by Bethany: Ten days left before the fiscal year ends and a state shutdown looms, here’s where we stand: The governor and the Senate reject the House budget. The House rejects the governor’s plans. And people involved in electricity rate negotiations still say “substantial progress” is being made and that something is close. In other words, nothing concrete is on the table. And the Senate isn’t back in town until Tuesday, while the House is still scheduled for Thursday and Monday.

UPDATE No progress was made in the afternoon leaders' meeting. House Minority Leader Tom Cross didn't hide his frustration, calling the process "rather embarrassing and a bit disgusting." The only thing discussed in the "show-and-tell meeting" was TIF districts in Chicago with no attempt to relate that issue to the state budget, said House Speaker Michael Madigan. The governor didn't even send his spokespeople out to make comments after the meeting.

Regarding the Senate's symbolic rejection of the House limited-growth budget, Madigan said, “I find it very curious. I note that it did not get 36 votes. It appears to me that certain people are grasping at straws in terms of what they perceive to be a budget debate. And I would say again, only one chamber has passed a budget. That is the House.”

Monday, June 18, 2007

Do you want to get paid?

About 4,900 state employees would start missing paychecks July 9 if the top lawmakers can’t agree on a state budget before the new fiscal year starts July 1. That’s the first symptom of a government “shutdown” outlined in this report released Monday by Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office.

“A fiscal meltdown would begin on July 9, and a full-blown crisis would ensue, by any standard, toward the middle of July,” wrote Rick Cornell, assistant comptroller for fiscal policy, in the memo.

Employees of the constitutional offices would be the first to get delayed paychecks. Agency workers who get paid later in the month, such as Department of Corrections and Human Services staffers, would start missing paydays without a budget in place July 25. (State university payrolls would be on a case-by-case basis.) But all employees eventually would get their checks. “If you work, you get paid,” said Carol Knowles, spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office. “It’s not a question of there not being money.” It’s a matter of the comptroller’s office having the authority to collect information from all the state agencies and to write the checks.

In addition, the state wouldn’t have the spending authority to pay doctors and nursing homes waiting for Medicaid reimbursements. That includes the medical providers who signed up for Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s All Kids health insurance program, which guaranteed payment within 30 days.

Some payments are court-ordered, including money for food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and aid for the elderly, blind and disabled. State retirement benefits, state income tax refunds and state debt also would have to be paid regardless of a shutdown.

Knowles said the spending authority, even if it's in the form of a month-long temporary budget, could be approved as late as July 9 for the first round of FY08 checks to be sent out by July 13. “To absolutely avoid any delays,” however, she said, “it would be helpful to have it in place by June 29th.”

The House is scheduled to be in session the last full week of June, but for better or worse, the chamber cancelled Tuesday’s session. A spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats said that chamber will be in session Tuesday, and Senate President Emil Jones plans to attend a leaders’ meeting in the afternoon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Substantial progress"

Repeat after me: “We made substantial progress.” Every person who emerged from today’s meeting between state lawmakers the electric utilities in Senate President Emil Jones’ office said the same thing, ensuring that we’ll see those words in headlines across the state Friday. But no one said what that progress entailed.

Those words and the meeting are significant not just because they sidelined the scheduled budget meeting that didn’t happen in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office this morning, but because they could weave together a state budget or pull the loose threat to unravel it. Remember that the House-approved minimal-growth budget has been held hostage until skyrocketing electricity rates are addressed. It’s hard to suppress the excitement that something could actually happen soon. If an electricity agreement is close, then would House Speaker Michael Madigan release the minimum-growth budget to the Senate? Would it have a chance in that chamber even though Jones has repeatedly said it’s unbalanced and would cut services for children?

Consider the setup: The so-called rate-freeze bill, HB 1750, that would roll back rates, freeze them for three years and reimburse customers for the high rates since January. It’s on the final passage stage in the Senate. And the Senate is scheduled to be in session Friday. And that chamber is prepping some “shell bills” that don’t have any language now but will become the measures containing a state budget later.

The House left Springfield until Tuesday, but not before Madigan sent a few messages plucking one more item from the Team Blagojevich-Jones wish list. First, Madigan released a letter indicating he’s sticking to his guns on the minimal-growth budget. Then a House committee rejected the Blagojevich-Jones gaming expansion that includes four new casinos in the Chicago region.

Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who heads many of the House gaming efforts, said HB 25 as amended by the Senate wasn’t cutting it. He doesn’t like the Senate’s criteria for the potential locations of the boats, and he thinks there’s insufficient aid for the racetracks and supporting agribusinesses. But he’s not giving up on gaming as a piece of budget negotiations. “Whether you have a budget problem or not, it’s hard to turn down [20,000] or [30,000] or 40,000 new jobs, a lot of construction and $2 or $3 billion a year. That having been said, we do have a budget problem in the state of Illinois, and I will leverage that if I need to move this ball forward.”

Let’s recap
- The House, Senate and governor’s office are still on opposite sides of the minimal-growth budget that passed the House. But it still has life as a viable safety measure if everything else implodes.
- They still differ on the extent of which gaming should expand: Madigan and the Republicans favor allowing existing riverboats to expand, while Team Blagojevich-Jones support the four-new-casino deal.
- Madigan and the governor differ on how the Chicago Transportation Authority can overcome a massive budget hole. Blagojevich wants to use corporate tax break closures to help out mass transit, while Madigan favors a regional sales tax increase proposal.
- One agreed revenue idea is the $300 million closure of corporate tax breaks.

So we’ve got potential electricity relief, potential gaming expansion and potential “corporate tax break closing” revenue. It doesn’t quite add up to a budget, yet, but we’re encouraged by the veering from the path Blagojevich was leading us down with daily seminars that leaders repeatedly said weren’t advancing budget negotiations.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

"Closing in on a collision"

Scratch the Illinois Lottery off the list of major revenue ideas, said House Speaker Michael Madigan Tuesday. The state legislative leaders agree overtime budget “negotiations” lack progress toward an agreement, but they do seem to be inching toward a process of elimination. Madigan said three out of four caucuses “strongly rejected” Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s idea to put $26 billion toward the $41 billion unfunded public pension liability by leasing the Illinois Lottery for $10 billion and floating $16 billion in pension obligation bonds.

Madigan’s statement adds one more item that the House eliminates from the governor’s wish list, including the gross receipts tax and universal health care. But Madigan said the governor doesn’t seem interested in resolving the issues one by one. “I can sit and look at a list of issues that are on the table, and I can go through and personally resolve them,” Madigan said. “But I’m not alone. It requires five people.”

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said it was “rather foolish” to reject the pension plan. “The other caucuses don’t want to do it, which seems ridiculous to me, because if we do a bond issue and sell the lottery, we’ll cut down on the indebtedness we have with the pension. And we save money,” he said. “Maybe they’ll come to their senses and realize that we have this obligation.”

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson and his caucus members haven’t taken a final position on leasing the lottery, said his spokeswoman Patty Schuh, but they have “serious reservations.” “Sen. Watson’s concerned that it's perhaps being proposed not for pension relief, but rather for budget relief, to free up cash for the governor to spend.”

House Republican Leader Tom Cross said these budget “negotiations” that include guest presentations aren’t even talking about numbers or a bottom line, yet. And it’s possible that this could just be a waiting game until everyone agrees on the House version of a limited-growth budget. Then everyone goes home knowing that the spending plan won’t get the state through an entire fiscal year.

No end is in sight if everyone remains entrenched in their positions:

1. The governor frames universal health insurance as the civil rights issue of the time.

2. Jones threatens to reject anything that cuts education funding or public services.

3. Madigan points to the House’s limited-growth budget that relies on $300 million in corporate tax break closures.

4. and 5. Republicans in both chambers oppose all tax increases.

Join the waiting game for a contingency plan if no state budget happens before July 1, the start of a new fiscal year. As Cross said, “We are closing in on a collision.”

Wednesday’s leaders’ meeting topic: mass transit funding. Thursday’s topic: property tax relief for Cook County.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Can, can you vote for a "Con Con" in 2008?

If the General Assembly can’t break the deadlock on education funding reform, ethics and property tax relief, then the Illinois voters should be encouraged to support the call for a constitutional convention, possibly changing the state document and making that reform happen. That’s what 48 representatives approved Thursday morning before the House and Senate finished their first, three-day week of overtime session. The House won’t be back in the Capitol until the June 12, the Senate June 14, much to the dismay of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. His administration repeated its belief that lawmakers should work all week every week until they agree on a state budget before the next fiscal year starts July 1.

The stalemate over the FY08 budget is just one example of the General Assembly’s inability to resolve some major policy issues.

In 2008, voters will be asked on the ballot whether Illinois should call another constitutional convention, last held in 1970. The existing state constitution requires the question to be on the ballot every 20 years. The last time was in 1988, when the call for a “con con” was soundly defeated by more than 1.8 million votes, said Cris Cray, legislative liaison with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Rep. John Fritchey hopes voters are frustrated enough to reconsider this time around.

His measure approved Thursday encourages Illinois voters to support the 2008 question and lists education funding, ethics and property taxes as issues unable to be resolved the General Assembly. The Chicago Democrat said during debate that a convention would allow the opportunity to reconsider whether the constitution should be changed to address those and other stubborn policy issues. “It’s about putting a room full of people in here that are going to put policy and intellect over election cycles, over politics, over campaign funding,” he said.

He gained support from Republicans, including his co-sponsor Rep. Bill Black of Danville, who said it’s time for the public to finally have a say in education funding reform. Because, he said, the other way to establish a major policy change, through legislation seeking a constitutional amendment, typically gets stuck in the legislative process.

Such opponents as House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago and Assistant Majority Leader Lou Lang of Skokie don’t like the idea of opening up the entire state document to change. “I think there’s a big risk in saying, ‘Let’s throw the whole thing open. Let’s start from scratch,’” Currie said. “We don’t need to start from scratch” because the General Assembly has a “good, sound” document to guide its operations. Lang added that a convention would invite all types of groups with specific agendas to cause “mischief” in altering the framework of the constitution.

Forty-seven House members rejected Fritchey’s measure, but it had enough votes to be adopted.

Shortly after lawmakers left town for the weekend, the governor led the third overtime meeting with the four legislative leaders. But his “speechmaking” and “nebulous talking” isn’t getting them closer to a budget agreement, according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson per his spokeswoman, Patty Schuh.

Blagojevich sent out Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix to address reporters again after the meeting. She said he wants property tax relief, that he’s willing to consider different approaches and that he plans to bring in Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan into next week’s leaders’ meeting.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Pondering pensions and leasing the lottery

Unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions was the subject of the second day of leaders’ meetings in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Statehouse office. Democratic and Republican leaders talked about the administration’s ideas to pay down some $41 billion in liabilities by a) issuing $16 billion in bonds and b) leasing the Illinois Lottery to generate $10 billion in new revenue. Thursday’s leaders’ meeting is scheduled to be about gaming and mass transit.

But the leaders said they’re no closer to agreeing on a budget today than they were before the May 31st deadline. Today’s meeting was “a couple of steps forward, two steps backwards, inch by inch,” said Senate President Emil Jones Jr. He later added, “Right now we do not have a budget. The proposed budget they voted on in the House is a budget that’s unbalanced.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan is set on his limited-growth budget that would allow a 3 percent increase in spending with no new programs. “I will repeat what I said about 10 times in the meeting: The House has passed a budget; the House has passed a budget. In due time the Senate can pass it with 36 Democratic votes, and the state will have spending authority for the next 12 months.”

As far as leasing the Lottery, Madigan said he’s willing to take a “good hard look” at the whole proposal. However, he doesn’t think the idea has enough support in his chamber. “The bottom line is that the state would lose somewhere in the future,” he said. “It will lose whatever money comes out of the Lottery today.”

On the Republican side of the House, Minority Leader Tom Cross said that leasing the Lottery sounds like a “financially smart thing to do” as long as the money goes where the governor promised it would go: the state’s unfunded pension liability.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Frank Watson said he’s also concerned that leasing the Lottery isn’t responsible. “That’s the problem with this administration. They haven’t been fiscally responsible for the future. It’s all about today. And that’s what concerns us. That’s what concerned us three years ago.”

He also gives us today’s big picture item about Madigan’s budget: “The speaker calls it the high-water mark budget for the House, and I’d say if that’s what he says, then I would assume that’s got to be the high-water mark for the Senate.” But one thing Watson said the speaker’s budget doesn’t take into account is the growth of Medicaid, which he said is “totally out of control” with $585 million expected natural growth next year even without expansions of eligibility for public aid. He perceived the governor as willing to meet throughout the summer. “You could sense that he’s not in any big rush to get out of here.”

Keeping 25 alive
Meanwhile, Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat and one of the lead reps on gaming issues, is trying to keep gaming expansion as a viable option for budget deliberations. Despite Madigan’s previous comments that the idea to create four new casinos also doesn’t have enough support in his chamber, the speaker spent some time listening during Lang’s 2.5-hour gaming committee hearing Wednesday morning.

“Just because the speaker believes there’s not enough support today doesn’t mean there won’t be enough support tomorrow,” Lang said after committee. While Lang’s not sold on the Senate version of legislation that would create four new casinos, he said, “I intend to try to keep the gaming issue alive, and if the way to do that for now is to keep HB 25 alive and not kill it, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Yes, Madigan let gaming be heard, but he also issued a “warning” memo that indicates four new casinos still aren’t in his minimal-growth budget.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Baby steps

It’s June 5, five days after the General Assembly missed its deadline to pass a budget, two business days after overtime session started and the first day Democratic and Republican leaders met with Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his Statehouse office to talk about the budget. And no one seemed in a real hurry.

As usual, a slew of reporters waited outside of the governor’s office for an hour and a half to get reaction from the first lawmaker to emerge from the glass doors. The maintenance crew even brought us chairs again. While waiting, we saw lawmakers hanging out, leaning on the rotunda’s brass rail, seeming as if they had no where else to be. Neither the House nor the Senate did much business. They have legislation they can move, but they’re unlikely to act on major spending or revenue plans until there’s an agreed budget. That counteracts the Blagojevich Administration’s repeated criticism that lawmakers should be in session every day of the week until a budget passes and before state agencies start to shut down July 1 from lack of a new state spending authority.

In other words, nothing’s advancing. The leaders aren’t changing their positions. In fact, they keep adding ultimatums.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said Tuesday that the minimal-growth budget already approved by his chamber won’t be released to the Senate until there’s electricity rate relief. He said that relief has to include a rate freeze, although it doesn’t have to be the three-year freeze currently in the House. But Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said he continues to oppose any freeze.

Jones, in line with the governor, said the General Assembly first has to take care of education and health care for everyone. However, that’s excluded from Madigan’s minimal-growth budget.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, who has gained some political leverage now that overtime measures require some Republican votes for passage, said the meetings were a necessary step — but not exactly a step forward. “It’s part of the process,” he said. “Is it frustrating? Sure. Is it productive? Probably not. But is it something that has to happen. Yeah, I guess it has to happen. Is it a good use of your time? Probably not. But it’s the nature of this beast.”

They’ll take another baby step in a second leaders’ meeting Wednesday.

Monday, June 04, 2007

There's a first time for everything

News flash: Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his senior staff want to be helpful. Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix held a Statehouse press conference Monday to announce the governor wants to invite all four legislative leaders, including Republicans, to weekly budget meetings. The first meeting scheduled for Tuesday would be the first time the governor has met with all four legislative leaders this session.

Nix repeatedly said the governor was “flexible” and “willing to compromise,” but she had a warning for both chambers: “The General Assembly does need to begin to start passing elements of a budget that the governor can sign.” She added, “The General Assembly needs to take action, not just engage in a three-day work week without progress.” She called the House schedule “back-loaded” because the chamber plans to hold session Tuesday through Thursday each week until the last week of June, when lawmakers could be in session Monday through Saturday.

The governor wants to meet with the four tops — Speaker Michael Madigan and Minority Leader Tom Cross in the House, and President Emil Jones Jr. and Minority Leader Frank Watson in the Senate — at the start of every week. And at the end of each week, Nix said the administration would available to meet with any of the caucuses to go over questions, numbers or concerns.

So far, Republican leaders Cross and Watson plan to attend Tuesday’s leaders’ meeting. “We’ve been waiting since January, so we’ll be there,” said Cross’ spokesman, David Dring. Watson’s spokeswoman, Patty Schuh, said Watson “absolutely” would attend and that “he’s looking forward to putting together a responsible budget for the coming fiscal year.” We’ll include Democratic leaders’ responses as we get them.

After her speech, Nix answered some questions from reporters but dodged others, including whether the governor would sign a limited-growth budget approved but stalled in the House. She and the senior staff immediately receded into the governor’s Statehouse office when reporters started asking about Sen. Mike Jacobs, the East Moline Democrat. He lashed out last week about feeling intimidated by Blagojevich after Jacobs cast a “no” vote for the governor’s health insurance plan. (See our June 1 blog.)

Blagojevich’s spokeswoman Rebecca Raush said after the press conference that she couldn’t speak to whether the governor would sign some of the budget pieces that already landed on his desk. Specifically, both chambers sent him a measure creating $300 million in revenue from ending some corporate tax breaks. They also sent him a $1.4 billion supplemental budget that would give more than $1 billion to hospitals caring for Medicaid patients and more than $1 million for lawmakers, judges and executive pay raises. It also includes more than $7 million for Court of Claims cases and payments to military families who lost a soldier in active duty.

Big picture: The limited-growth budget that’s stalled in the House (because it’s being held hostage until electricity rate relief happens) would rely on less than $800 million natural revenue growth, $300 million in “corporate loophole” closings with a construction program paid for by gaming expansion. A House committee is scheduled to consider the four-boat gaming expansion Wednesday morning. The Senate recently approved the measure.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Twilight zone

Just when you thought things couldn’t get weirder, the Statehouse erupts with tension-riddled drama. Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s communication staff has a public relations emergency on its hands leading into the weekend after Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline didn’t hold back in describing his confrontation with the governor over a spoiled deal.

Jacobs’ fellow Democrats tried twice to pull him away from the microphones in the Senate press box Friday afternoon.

The apparent tension started to build more than 12 hours before, at 12:15 a.m. on the last night of regularly scheduled session. Jacobs pressed the “no” button for the biggest item on the governor’s wish list: expansion of state-sponsored health insurance for adults. It was agreed that in exchange for Jacobs’ “yes” vote on the health plan, he was promised $75 million for a college in his western Illinois district. Right after he pressed “no,” however, Jacobs said loud enough for reporters to hear, “Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”

The governor’s office had this to say in an e-mailed statement: “Senator Jacobs wanted a commitment of a $75 million project in his district in exchange for his vote to provide healthcare for everyone. The governor refused.”

Jacobs said the governor went as far as calling Western Illinois University president Al Goldfarb and said he had Jacobs to thank for putting the college’s capital funding at risk. A spokesman for Western Illinois University confirmed that the governor’s office called Goldfarb asking him to encourage Jacobs to vote in favor of the health plan. University spokesman John Maguire said no threats were made to withhold funding, and the university has been working with Jacobs and the governor’s office for months to arrange $73 million in new funding for capital projects, as seen in Blagojevich’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008.

Though unconfirmed by the administration, Jacobs also said that the governor threatened his political career and that he felt intimidated in the governor’s Statehouse office Friday morning. “We can disagree. We can have moments where we don’t even like each other. But there should never be a time when the governor of Illinois threatens someone in a political and personal manner. It’s beneath the quorum of this building.”

According to Jacobs, he rejected the health plan because of its $1.5 billion tax increase. “It’s a lot of money for an experiment, for tinkering,” he said. “Somebody suggested, ‘Senator, throw the bill over to the House and let the House take care of this.’ Well, OK. But I want to stay focused on what I found offensive, and that was not the message, but the tactics. It was beneath the governor of Illinois.”

We’ll never be in that room to know who’s telling the truth.

Other Democrats voted against the governor’s health plan on the last night of regular session, too. They included first-year Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge, Latino Caucus leader Sen. Tony Munoz of Chicago and Sen. Louis Viverito of Burbank.

Weekly roundup

Stem cell research
Public dollars would be set aside for all types of stem cell research, including the highly controversial embryonic stem cell research, under a measure approved by both chambers.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, whose daughter has juvenile diabetes, made an emotional plea during House floor debate for his peers to approve the proposal. “I understand people may have different beliefs and views about [stem cell research],” said Cross of Oswego. “But this is the right thing to do.”

The research has been touted as potentially helping people with diabetes, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. The measure moves to the governor’s desk, and if he signs, people would be able to donate their unused frozen embryos for research.

“This new law will create further incentives for leveraging additional research dollars from foundations, private donors and investors in biotechnology and medical research,” said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat and Senate sponsor.

Cross also introduced a measure that would earmark $25 million of a national tobacco settlement for the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute to fund stem cell research projects in the state.

HPV vaccines
Parents would receive information about the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease, under a measure approved by both chambers. The disease, often called HPV, is linked to about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, according the U.S. Center of Disease Control.

Merck & Co. developed a vaccine that would target four types of the HPV virus. Under the measure, parents also would get information about the three-shot series during their daughters’ sixth-grade school physicals. The pharmaceutical group came under fire earlier this year when accused of lobbying legislators to push for mandatory vaccinations.

If the governor signs the measure, the state would make the shots available in 2011 to any female younger than 18 who wants to be vaccinated.

The sponsor, House Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson of Crete, also drafted a separate proposal earlier this year that would include the vaccination into girls’ inoculation schedules. The measure stalled in the Senate. Read our March issue for a more in-depth look at the HPV legislation.

Roadside markers
Both chambers also approved a measure that would provide roadside markers to families wishing to place a memorial on the site where their loved ones were killed by an intoxicated driver. If the governor signs it, grieving family members could apply for a roadside marker with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Mental health
A person with mental illnesses deemed as a danger to himself or herself or to others wouldn’t be allowed to own guns, and his or her information would be shared with law enforcement under a measure approved by the Senate. Mental facilities would forward patient information to the Illinois State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And families and other caregivers would be able to admit a person with mental illness into an institution without his or her consent under a separate measure approved by both chambers. If the person had a history of not being able to care for himself or herself or a history of harming others, the caregivers would be able to petition the court and ask for the person to be institutionalized.

Happy June 1

The clock struck midnight, and instead of hearing a chime, the Senate heard bombs nose diving into the ground. That was the sound of Senate Democrats whistling in anticipation of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s universal health-care proposal failing when called for debate at midnight, the scheduled adjournment of the regular spring session. Accepting the lack of support for the governor’s plan, the Senate leadership continued business but had to postpone voting on the full measure. They’ll be back for more legislative action Friday before leaving for the weekend and returning in overtime session Tuesday, June 5.

In the final hour, Republicans mustered enough energy for the last stand against the Democrats’ proposed four new casinos. “You couldn’t get it together for a budget, but somehow in the 11th hour, you get it together for gambling,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. Sen. Carole Pankau, a Roselle Republican, questioned the motives of selecting four areas around Chicago and said it didn’t “smell right.”

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. briefly walked around the Democratic side of the chamber before calmly sitting to his chair. As Republicans threw out a barrage of verbal cuts, Jones didn't seem the least bit fazed by their remarks. He didn't flinch.

But one of his own party members, Sen. James Meeks of Chicago, sat quietly, and it was hard to tell if the look on his face reflected anger, fatigue, disgust or disappointment. He voted against the casinos, saying earlier he preferred a way to raise money for education without relying on gaming.

The measure still had enough support from 30 senators to advance to the House. Democratic Sen. James Clayborne, the measure’s sponsor from Belleville, said he hopes House Speaker Michael Madigan will decide that expanding gaming is good for the state because it will create jobs and increase education funding. Madigan has already said there isn’t enough support for four new casinos, but some Democrats and Republicans could approve a limited gaming expansion to fund road and school construction.

The Senate also approved the House's version of a revenue package expected to generate $300 million by closing "corporate loopholes," a.k.a. tax breaks. But they still don't have a full budget. Both chambers will have 30 days to debate and agree on revenue and spending plan before the next state budget takes effect July 1.