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.

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