Monday, July 30, 2007

Less than nine days left?

State Comptroller Daniel Hynes says he only feels comfortable keeping his office in operation until August 8 if the state legislators and the governor can’t agree on a state budget by then. He said in a Statehouse news conference Monday that August 8 is the first day his office needs to cut the checks in order for 4,900 employees to get paid on time and for public schools to get $170 million’s worth of state aid on time to start the school year.

“It’s frustrating. It’s perplexing. It’s embarrassing, and it’s inexplicable,” he said. “I mean, I go home and I don’t really have an explanation for people. But my primary focus right now is to get people to feel comfortable about the fact that government will operate. There’s no reason to have this atmosphere of fear and anxiety out there, state employees not knowing whether to come to work, whether they’ll be paid for their work, people who do business with the state.”

His message was similar to what he said in June before the legislative leaders and the governor agreed to a one-month, stopgap budget that got us through July.

This time, however, the legislative leaders aren’t interested in another one-month budget when this one expires July 31. Then again, the leaders also aren’t quite ready to move pieces of a full-year budget by the time the temporary budget expires tomorrow.

But they do have eight full days before Hynes’ warning applies. A full-year budget in the first week of August is possible. As celebrated as that would be, I’d have to miss it. I’m taking the next couple of weeks off to get married and to take our honeymoon in Germany. Let’s cross our fingers that a state budget will be in effect by the end of August.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Will this be worth it?

Gov. Rod Blagojevich called a special session for Saturday morning to discuss another one-month budget, which would prevent the state from shutting down in the politically important month of August. But Senate President Emil Jones Jr. told reporters he’s not interested in a one-month. House Speaker Michael Madigan said the same Thursday. If any action happened this weekend, it most likely would be behind closed doors.

It’s ideal if leaders focus on drafting a state budget that would get us through the entire fiscal year, but a cloud still hangs over the Statehouse budget negotiations. Individual budget items are moving; yet, core disagreements continue. The amount of new money, the method of raising that money and the beneficiaries of that money isn’t worked out yet. Can they hash it out before the existing temporary budget expires July 31?

If not, bad things would start to happen. And it would be worse than if the state had shut down in July, says Kent Redfield, political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “If we’d have shut down in July, people wouldn’t have been able to get into state parks and stuff. But an August shutdown is much, much more serious because of school formulas, the starting of universities and the state fair.”

Public schools expect their first state aid payments in the first half of August, and the Illinois State Fair kicks off August 10. Without state aid payments, schools would be in a bind. And the nine-day State Fair kicks off campaign season for the next elections. The shutdown of public schools and the absence of a state fair would be noticed by the general public, a politically and economically damaging scenario.

But let’s stick with Redfield’s ray of sunshine in another analysis: As frustrating as this session has been since January, it could be a strategy to tame the expectations now rather than let them build each of the governor’s next three years. We can only hope.

Note: Our Public Affairs Reporting intern, Deanese Williams-Harris, finished her internship this week. We wish her the best of luck and thank her for her hard work and dedication.

On another note, I’m taking the weekend off but will be ready for action Monday.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

12-month budget buzz

The Senate moved a 12-month budget out of committee by an 8 to 4 vote along party lines. The budget proposes a 9 percent increase from fiscal year 2007 and relies on the creation of four additional riverboats, the closure of some corporate tax breaks, the sweep of left over money in dedicated funds and the natural revenue growth.

Some of the spending highlights include dropping $600 million into the state’s pension fund, spending $2.3 billion on school and road construction and placing $900 million in a special fund for education. The minimum amount of state aid spent per child would increase by $554, and the budget would authorize the second year of a “hospital assessment program” that would distribute federal dollars to hospitals that care for Medicaid patients.

What the budget doesn’t include is property-tax relief, funding for transit, funding for the governor’s health care initiative, stem cell research or any mechanisms to address the Medicaid spending cycle. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Donne Trotter, said those are “stand-alone issues” that will be taken up later in separate legislation.

Senate Republicans oppose the budget because it doesn’t say how any of the money for school and road construction would be spent, leaving little assurance that any money would reach their districts. The AFSCME Council 31 union opposes the budget because it doesn’t include money to address what it calls staffing shortages in state prisons and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The Senate did not call the bill for a vote on the floor Thursday night. They’re back in session Friday, as is the House. It’s still unknown whether they’ll be working over the weekend.

The House and the Senate approved the $1 billion electricity rate relief package. It also creates a new, independent state agency to procure power on behalf of the utilities, dismisses lawsuits brought against the utilities and power generators, requires the state to implement more energy efficiency programs and requires the state to use more renewable energy sources.
Bethany Carson contributed to this report.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Revenue, health care and electricity rates

The House and Senate advanced different pieces of legislation — a cigarette tax and a health care plan in the Senate and an electricity rate relief plan in the House — but there’s no clear indication that these individual pieces could actually converge into the much-delayed state budget. House Democrats spent about three hours in what felt like an end-of-session gathering behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon. And each of the pieces is expected to be heard on the floor in their respective chambers Thursday, but their futures in the opposite chambers are murky. The same goes for their future in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office. As House Speaker Michael Madigan said of the cigarette tax advance in the Senate, “We’ll see.” Here’s a recap of the different measures:

Cigarette tax
Seven days before a possible government shutdown, lawmakers moved a bill out of committee that would generate additional revenue for the state by taxing smokers.

The measure would increase the tax on cigarettes by 75 cents a pack. If approved by both chambers and signed by the governor, the proposed tax on cigarettes would generate about $328 million a year.

It’s unclear how the money would actually be spent, but its sponsor, Chicago Democratic Sen. John Cullerton, said that so far, the money would go into the state’s general revenue fund and be intended to fund a road and school construction plan. Cullerton also said legislators have their own wish lists for the money, such as education funding, capital and health care. However, he assured the final decision would be made collectively by the General Assembly.

Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, wasn’t so quick to jump on the cigarette tax band wagon. He said Democrats would control where the money goes. “What’s happened to the rest of us who serve a quarter of a million people back home is truly disgraceful,” he said, mentioning unfunded projects for school and road construction in Republican districts.

“Somebody’s [going to] have to take a chance,” Cullerton said. “I know one thing. We can’t fund it at all if there’s no new revenue. This is new revenue, and it’s the easiest way I can think of to get support of three-fifths.”

Opponents voiced concern about small businesses losing revenue from people crossing the borders to buy cigarettes. Coincidentally, Indiana increased its cigarette tax by $1.01. In Washington, the U.S. Senate also approved a $1 tax on cigarettes.

The Illinois Department of Revenue said it supports the proposed cigarette tax, straying away from the governor’s campaign pledge not to sign any legislation that would increase sales tax. “This is different than the sales tax,” said Larry Doll, spokesman for the department. “It’s an excise item. It’s different than a general sales tax. A sales tax is applied to all items including necessities. People need food, clothing, what have you, whereas I don’t think you can make the same argument for cigarettes.” Doll also said it’s his understanding that the governor would sign the legislation if it wins approval.

The governor’s office hasn’t confirmed that yet. If approved, the legislation would immediately go into effect.

Revamped health care proposal
Despite a weird afternoon of goofs and misunderstandings, the governor’s scaled-back Illinois Covered health care proposal moved out of a Senate committee with a 7-4 vote along party lines.

The governor wants to pay for the $1.2 billion initiative with a 3 percent payroll tax on businesses that employ at least 10 but that don’t provide comprehensive health benefits to them. The biggest question of the day was how many businesses would actually be subject to the tax. The committee will have to wait for that answer because no one had those numbers on hand.

The $1.2 billion would go into a trust fund, and the General Assembly would be limited to spending 90 percent of the cash per year to curtail overspending.

Some Senators voiced concern that almost 500,000 of the 1.4 million uninsured and underinsured Illinoisans wouldn’t qualify for either of the two health care packages the governor proposed. Eligibility would be modified as the program moves forward, depending on the revenue generated. Sen. Carol Ronen, the measure's sponsor and Blagojevich ally, estimates that 300,000 people will qualify for one of the programs, and 600,000 would qualify for a second option.

Todd Maisch of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce said the payroll assessment tax would “target the most vulnerable employers.” He also called the tax erroneous and excessive. “The major change is funding,” he said. “This is not a scaled back proposal.”

The proposal will most likely be called for a vote in the Senate this week.

Electricity rate relief
The $1 billion in electricity rate relief for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers is one step closer to becoming law. It’s not without controversy, however, as House Republicans aren’t happy that they weren’t part of closed-door negotiations for most of the past month. If Wednesday night’s House committee hearing was any indication, House Republicans could protest by voting “no” or “present” when the legislation reaches the House floor. But it would still have enough votes among Democrats to return to the Senate.

House Speaker Michael Madigan seemed to smile as he welcomed the chance of Republican rejection. “If there’s some member of the legislature who wishes to vote ‘no’ against $1 billion of rate relief, be my guest.” In other words, a Republican “no” vote for rate relief would make prime campaign literature for the Democrats during election season — it’s the equivalent of saying their opponent voted against health care for children or meals for the elderly.

One controversial portion of the deal that’s unsettling to some is that the state would dismiss six lawsuits brought against the utilities and power companies as a result of the September power auction. That includes the case filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office that alleged the power companies colluded to set electricity prices that robbed customers of an extra $4.3 million.

Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, was one of the skeptics. “How’s the public protected by not following through and getting to the bottom of each one of these lawsuits instead of just dismissing them with the signing of this letter of understanding and the passage of this legislation? How in good faith can the state of Illinois settle those two cases when you have made serious allegations of manipulation and fraud upon the public?” He was the lone Republican to vote “present” in committee because he said he supported offering rate relief but didn’t like the process of coming to this deal.

Susan Hedman, senior assistant attorney general, justified the dismissal of the lawsuits by saying her office believed rate relief was needed now and that the procurement of power needed to be reformed for the future. “There’s a tradeoff between getting relief up front and waiting. If we do not get reforms in the procurement process now, it would mean that every year that we’re litigating that case, there could be another reverse auction with the danger of the same problems that we observed last time.” She later cut someone off and said, rather bluntly, that without dismissal of the lawsuits, “the deal falls apart.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How do you spell relief?

A long awaited plan for electricity rate relief was announced Tuesday by Illinois’ two major utilities. It’s expected to be discussed and possibly voted on in the House Wednesday. The package is the result of months of public hearings and closed-door meetings, but it may not meet some expectations.

Customers around the state could get a lump sum credit in their September bills ranging from about $50 to about $80, which would cover some of their increased costs for the first half of the year. Starting in October, they would get monthly credits that would eventually decrease until they phased out in 2009.

Officials from the utilities — Commonwealth Edison that serves northern Illinois and Ameren Illinois that serves south of I-80 — held separate press conferences in Springfield to say they supported the compromise proposal.

“It is a very expensive deal for, I think, our industry and for the generators in this state, but I think it does strike all of the right balances,” said Frank Clark, ComEd chairman and chief executive officer.

It’s expensive for power generators because they’re footing most of the $1 billion package, which prevents Clark and Scott Cisel, Ameren Illinois president and chief executive officer, from projecting financial bankruptcy like they did for months as the General Assembly threatened to refreeze electricity rates to give customers a break. But in exchange for the power generators paying for the credits, state lawmakers agreed not to reinstate a freeze or levy a tax on power generators, Clark said.

There’s also something for everyone. House Speaker Michael Madigan and Attorney General Lisa Madigan would get their Illinois Power Authority, a new public power agency that would buy power on behalf of the utilities and potentially generate its own power. Gov. Rod Blagojevich also would get some of his environmental policy proposals for energy efficiency and renewable resources. And Senate President Emil Jones Jr. doesn’t have to vote on a rate freeze.

But it’s not a completely rosy picture. There are lots of questions about the pending legislation. State Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, pointed out on the House floor Tuesday that the monthly credits won’t live up to the hype. “You may see a 70 percent reduction in the increase, but you’re not going to get a 70 percent reduction of your bill,” he yelled. He’s right.

Here’s a chart with examples of Ameren Illinois bills before and after the relief. Regional info can be found here. ComEd customers in October and beyond would get an average monthly credit of about $7 — that’s half of the $14 average increase they were paying over their 2006 monthly bills. “When you hear us talk about $7 a month, I know that’s not overly exciting,” Clark said, “but it’s approximately half of the increase.”

From the industry’s point of view, here’s a few ongoing questions:
- A newly created Illinois Power Authority would buy power on behalf of the Illinois utilities, but it’s unknown how successful the state would be in buying power at a cheaper rate than the utilities.
- It’s also unknown how the state would succeed in building power plants and essentially competing with existing power suppliers.
- It’s also unclear how the proposal would be flexible in allowing utilities and their parent companies to restructure. Further, what are the implications of any restructuring?

Monday, July 23, 2007

One of those weeks

Monday’s events could set the tone for an action-packed but odd week at the Capitol. Strange bedfellows flew around the state to announce an electricity rate relief package that took months to unfold, and the governor spent the day in Chicago while busloads of Chicago ministers drove down to Springfield to rally and pray outside of his Statehouse office, as well as the House and the Senate.

First, the strange bedfellows of Senate President Emil Jones Jr., House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan flew around the state Monday announcing a long-awaited deal to relieve electricity rates for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers. Details of the agreement are provided from the House Democrats’ Web site in this press release and this fact sheet. Highlights: In addition to one-time credits, customers’ bills would reflect between 40 percent and 70 percent off of the 2007 rates. The rates going forward would be set by the new Illinois Power Authority, which would scrap the type of auction that set this year’s rates and that was supposed to transition Illinois into a deregulated system. Legislation is expected to move soon.

Second, four busloads of ministers and education advocates tried to storm the Capitol to urge state lawmakers and the governor to increase education funding. When guards calmly told them they couldn’t get onto the floor of each chamber, the group knelt in prayer and then sang spiritual hymns as they walked to the next door. When they approached the governor’s office, they were again greeted by guards and then by the governor’s chief of staff, John Harris. Their momentum deflated when Harris told them the governor wasn’t even in the Capitol, that he was in Chicago signing the statewide smoking ban. The ministers were invited to a meeting with all legislative leaders and the governor in the Capitol Tuesday, but most of them returned to their busses.

Earlier, the ministers held a Statehouse press conference and said lawmakers have a “moral obligation” to increase education funding. They stressed they weren’t in town for anyone’s agenda other than the children’s and that they were in Springfield to urge the governor to stand by his promise to put more money into education. (Blagojevich and Jones proposed $1.5 billion for education.)

“We’ve had the governor to our churches on several occasions, singing, what’s his favorite song, ‘Precious Lord, take my hand,’” Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of Bethlehem Star Church in Chicago said. “I think that if there’s no budget, absolutely, he’ll get a different reception. Not only him, but we’ll have Emil Jones, who we have a lot of lines with. All of them, they all will get a different reception.”

But Rep. Arthur Turner, a Chicago Democrat, said the group is the first of many to stressing the need for more education funding, but they’re just starting to realize the complexity of weighing all the budgetary needs. “If you’ve got funding in the schools and the CTA busses aren’t running on a school day, you’re still no better off than you were before,” he said after speaking with the ministers.

Third, AFSCME Council 31, which represents about 40,000 state employees, sent a letter Friday urging the leaders and the governor to avoid a government shutdown, preferably with a 12-month budget or at least with another one-month budget.

Fourth, the governor signed the statewide smoking ban in Chicago Monday. It bans smoking in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, hospitals, nursing homes, sports arenas, casinos and other places January 1, 2008.

More action gets under way Tuesday.
Deanese Williams-Harris contributed to this report.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Former corrections chief and contractors indicted


Donald Snyder Jr., former director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, was indicted on federal charges of receiving about $50,000 in illegal kickbacks from two lobbyists who represented health-care companies holding large contracts with the state. The indictments stem from a federal investigation, “Operation Safe Road,” that led to the corruption conviction of former Gov. George Ryan. The former governor appointed Snyder, of Pittsfield, to his post that ran from 1999 to 2003.

“As a top state official, Mr. Snyder was bound by various rules governing his acceptance of gifts or favors of any kind,” said U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in a press release. “He was forbidden from receiving cash kickbacks from anyone, much less from lobbyists representing companies doing millions of dollars in business with IDOC.”

Lobbyist John Robinson of Barrington Hills in northern Illinois represented an Illinois-based company that held a multi-million dollar contract with the state to provide health-care services for Illinois inmates. He also is the former Cook County undersheriff. Between 1996 and 2003, he allegedly arranged a contract with the health-care company to receive $2,500 a month in addition to 5 percent of the company’s income from contracts with the Department of Corrections. The indictment says Robinson expected to get an increased payment of $4,500 a month as soon as the health-care company’s state contract exceeded $4 million.

Larry Sims of Pleasant Plains in central Illinois, represented a Pennsylvania health-care company that also held multi-million dollar contracts with the corrections department. He allegedly co-schemed with Snyder and Robinson to file false statements with the state to hide the illegal payments to Snyder.

Snyder and Robinson were each charged with five counts of mail fraud, one carrying a maximum sentence of one year in prison and four others carrying up to 20 years in prison. Sims was charged with one count of perjury for allegedly lying to a grand jury during the investigation, an offense carrying a maximum punishment of five years in prison. The indictment also seeks $50,000 from Snyder. If convicted, all three also could have to pay a $250,000 fine on each count.

Budget negotiation update


Today’s leaders’ meeting focused on spending instead of ways to generate new revenue. There also was talk that electric rate relief may be around the corner.

As far as the budget, there seems to be no visible movement. “Reports that there’s a deal and so forth, that’s erroneous,” Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said.

However, Deputy Governor Shelia Nix said progress has been made, and that next week should be a key week in getting the budget wrapped up by the end of the month.

Sen. Jones said, “The governor had his revenue proposal to drive the budget, and that’s been rejected by the House. We the Senate Democrats put forth our revenue proposal to fund education, to take care of the capital needs of state of Illinois, the House rejected that,”

He also said, “Now perhaps the House will come forth with its revenue measure and maybe the speaker will go ahead and push the income tax.”

In other news, electric rate relief proposal may be in the final stages of completion.

Jones, along with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Attorney General Lisa Madigan has scheduled a fly-around trip to discuss details of a statewide electric rate relief package. “It’s being put together,” Jones said. “It’s not complete as of yet.” However, he did say “the deal is pretty, pretty close.”

The group intends to release the details on Monday said Jones. The trip will begin in Peoria, then to Decatur, Cahokia and end in Marion.

Both chambers will be out for the weekend, the first time since the special sessions began. They’re scheduled to get back to work Monday afternoon.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Transit woes


As the clock ticks toward a possible government shutdown, Sen. Martin Sandoval said Thursday he wouldn’t support a state budget that lacks funding for education and transportation.

“Once again, there needs to be a recognition there is a crisis in Illinois and that service cuts will happen 60 days from today as a result of our inability to fund this priority,” he said during a Statehouse press conference Thursday morning. “I, from my own perspective, will not vote, and cannot, in right conscience, vote on any budget compromise that does not include money for the RTA, CTA, PACE and Metra.”

He joined legislators from both chambers to talk about ways to avoid service reductions in transportation services scheduled to take place in northeastern Illinois as early as September 17.

The CTA plans to eliminate 63 bus routes and two rail lines. Fares also would rise from $2 to $4.25 during rush hour, and workers would be laid off. PACE plans to cut all weekend bus services, all Metra station routes and 23 regional routes for the entire suburban Chicago area. It also would raise fares by 33 percent and reduce transportation for the disabled to the federally-mandated standards.

Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat, said legislators are in the final stages of drafting legislation that would generate additional funding for transit. “The transit system has not been fully supported by the state budget in 24 years,” she said. “This is no time now to take on the responsibility for transit as part of our state budget. What the system does not need is a one-year bailout that would put us back in not only the same place next year, but in an even worse condition.”

Lawmakers propose a regional tax increase and a full range of reforms that would address transit spending and pension system accountability.

So far, legislators have two funding components on the table that include a one-quarter percent sales tax increase for the six counties in northeastern Illinois and a real estate transfer tax in Chicago. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has repeated his campaign promise that he wouldn’t approve any legislation to raise state income or sales taxes. Therefore, if the measure wins the approval of both chambers, lawmakers could override his veto.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tax talk

It’s almost like we’ve come full circle. The spring session started with momentum behind talk of state tax increases to address funding for education, public employee pensions and health care. But the Statehouse chatter fizzled by the time the General Assembly missed its May 31 deadline to approve a state budget. Now, 48 days later, a couple tax ideas have popped back into summer budget negotiations.

It’s like déjà vu. House Speaker Michael Madigan announced on Chicago talk radio and to the Statehouse press Wednesday that the best way for Gov. Rod Blagojevich to get new revenue is to consider that the majority of House Democrats support some kind of an income tax increase. But Blagojevich has repeatedly and passionately promised to reject an increase in the state income or sales tax. The only possible change is by Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who has sided with the governor since he first proposed the now defunct gross receipts tax on businesses to fund health care. Jones said Wednesday, however, he would consider an income tax increase.

“[HB] 750 had the regressive sales tax, which I strongly oppose,” Jones said after a budget meeting in the governor’s Statehouse office. “But I’m open to the income tax, as well.” (The 750 legislation has long called for an increase in income and sales taxes to reduce property taxes and reform the way the state funds education.) When asked whether he could change the governor’s mind on an income tax increase, Jones said, “The governor was opposed to gaming, and I persuaded him to back off his opposition to gaming. And so if the House passes the income tax as the speaker indicated on WVON, he should go ahead and pass the legislation, and we would give it a strong consideration in the Senate.”

Madigan even made a point to tell the press that he had dinner with Jones Tuesday night in Springfield. “The most significant thing for me coming out of the meeting was that Sen. Jones strongly indicated that he was willing to work with me to finalize the budget for the next fiscal year,” Madigan said. He also said gaming was not in the budget that he was preparing.

But Jones said he wouldn’t accept a budget without gaming expansion unless Madigan came up with an alternative revenue source to fund Jones’ desired $1.5 billion increase in education funding. Jones said other revenue ideas still on the table include the closure of some corporate tax breaks and an alternative minimum tax, which would apply to businesses that make a lot of money but that don’t pay a lot of state taxes. The way to come up with a compromise on alternative revenue ideas, Jones said, was up to the speaker. “Now it’s up to [Madigan] to provide the quality leadership to get additional dollars we need for education — quality leadership.”

Senate Republicans oppose the idea of an income tax increase, according to Sen. Minority Leader Frank Watson. But his caucus’ votes wouldn’t be needed if the Senate Democrats utilized their veto-proof majority of 37 to 22. Over in the House, Republicans would be needed to override to a governor’s veto on an income tax increase.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross wasn’t feeling today’s leaders' meeting as he made an early exit. “We’re having the same discussion that we had in January, February, March, April, May, June, and now July,” he said, raising his voice a little more than normal and seeming more perturbed. “We’ve had a budget process, we’ve had a committee process, we have caucuses, and we hear political rhetoric and political speeches everyday, and it doesn’t bring us any closer to conclusion.”

Poll results favor Illinois Covered
Will the results of a poll released today by Lake Research Partners make some lawmakers change their tune about the governor’s Illinois Covered proposal? One survey question in particular foreshadows campaign season. When asked whether they would be more likely to re-elect their legislator if he or she supported the governor's health insurance plan, out of the 600 likely Illinois voters surveyed, 55 percent said they would. That number breaks down to 67 percent Democrats, 40 percent Republicans and 52 percent Independents.

Participants also were asked whether they would support a plan if it were paid for by an increase in gaming taxes, a tax on employers who don’t offer comprehensive health insurance and an insurance premium based on the ability to pay. Seventy-eight percent were in favor of those three funding sources; 15 percent opposed and 8 percent were undecided.

People also identified that they thought the focus for this summer's special sessions should be health care costs and health care reform (88 percent), education investments and reform (80 percent), improving roads and transportation (65 percent), as well as unfunded state pensions (53 percent).

“The people of Illinois are telling us that health care is their top priority and we cannot let them down,” said Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a press release today. “This year in Illinois, we have a unique opportunity to pass the most comprehensive health care plan in the country that would give every family and small business in our state access to affordable health coverage.”

The poll was sponsored by America’s Agenda Health Care Education Fund, the AARP, the AFL-CIO and the Campaign for Better Health Care. All of those organizations supported Blagojevich’s Illinois Covered plan from the beginning.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Electricity deal could come soon

The Capitol is buzzing about a potential deal on electricity rate relief for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers, who have been paying between an average of 25 percent to 55 percent higher electricity rates since a state law expired January 2.

The general framework of the relief package footed by the power utilities and potentially their parent companies is expected to total about $1 billion — doubling the former proposal — and offer relief for customers over three years, according to Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat who’s been following the negotiations. Customers could receive checks for credits as early as two weeks after the agreement were approved by the state legislature and processed through the Illinois Commerce Commission. Another major change could be the creation of an Illinois Power Authority, which I wrote about in our June issue and could procure and generate power for Illinoisans.

We’ve been following the electricity rate debate and private negotiations for months, but Clayborne says, “We’re very, very close,” and, “I think we pretty much have an agreement. Logistically, we have to work out some issues.”

Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat also close to the negotiations, said those details that still have to be ironed out are enough to stop him from screaming from the rooftops that a deal is coming. “The deal isn’t completely done. It’s being finalized. It’s in the final stages, but it’s not completely done.” But he did say he didn’t deny anything Clayborne said or deny that the deal is very close to being turned into legislation for the General Assembly to consider.

Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris had this to say: “I’m very optimistic that we are going to see a positive resolution to all of this in the very near future.” He added, “We certainly will be making the appropriate announcements to the news media. I think you will hear the thunder of feet running to the Blue Room.” (The Blue Room is in the Statehouse Press Room where people hold press conferences in front of a blue curtain.)

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to approve an electricity rate relief package that comes his way. “For several months, the governor has urged the legislature to pass a bill that provides consumers significant relief from skyrocketing electric rates,” wrote Blagojevich spokeswoman, Rebecca Rausch, in an e-mail. “We understand negotiators are close to an agreement, and we look forward to reviewing the final product.”

Small group meetings or small progress?
The governor has been in town since Monday, but no official leaders’ meetings have convened. The legislature has broken up into small group meetings so far to discuss gaming, a capital plan, education, revenue, agency spending and the Illinois Department of Corrections. They’re closed to the public.

The governor also sent a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson criticizing them for halting progress on a proposal to expand gaming, which would pay for the debt service on a capital plan and for education. “Negotiations broke down over your refusal to dedicate some portion of new gaming revenue to education,” the governor wrote. He also said, “A budget that invests in infrastructure without providing resources for education and health care is not an option. We must find a way to meet all of our obligations.”

A leaders’ meeting will convene in the governor’s Capitol office Wednesday afternoon. The Senate Education Committee also is holding multiple-hour hearings every day this week, and many witnesses testify about the impact of the state budget problems on education and its relationship to student achievement. The hearings are a well-organized love fest between educators and some of the lawmakers and won’t result in a vote on legislation.

Other legislative movement
Illinois is on an even playing field with Texas in the final stages of competition for a $1 billion coal gasification plant, which would bring national and international attention to the state, according to sponsors of legislation designed to attract the FutureGen project to Tuscola or Mattoon in central Illinois. The Illinois House approved the incentive package 99 to 0 with one voting present this afternoon. If Illinois were chosen by an international alliance, this state would house the world’s first zero-emissions coal-fired power plant that’s touted to be a cleaner source of energy. It also would be a groundbreaking public-private partnership between local, state, national and international entities, with the added perk of creating a lot of new jobs wherever it lands. The bill has to go back to the Senate for final approval.

The House also “approved” a resolution stating the current governor should stay in Springfield during overtime session. It’s written to identify and pressure Gov. Rod Blagojevich, not future governors. Despite loud “boos” primarily from Democrats, who said the resolution was unfair and presented only for political gain, the resolution was considered approved by a “voice vote.” The measure is nonbinding.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Gov: No gaming without health care

On Tuesday we learned that Gov. Rod Blagojevich was willing to delay his plan to provide health insurance for adults. That would help lawmakers break the deadlock and approve a state budget, he said. On Thursday we learned state lawmakers were considering an expansion of gaming to pay for improvement of roads, bridges and schools. Friday’s developments taught us that the governor won’t sign an expansion of gaming without first having a health care bill approved.

Blagojevich’s point person in the House, Democratic Rep. Jay Hoffman of Chicago, spoke for him after a leaders’ meeting in the governor’s Statehouse office. Hoffman said the governor was willing to scale back his health care plan, but “scale back” doesn’t mean reducing the price. “We’re not talking about scaling back the goals,” Hoffman said. “We’re not talking about scaling back any of the means of providing affordable access to health care for everyone. We would look at taking the employer assessment as well as potentially some other revenue and implementing the health care plan beginning June 1, 2008, and over a four-year period.”

The “employer assessment” is a 3 percent tax on businesses that employ more than 10 people but that don’t offer health insurance for them. That’s still expected to generate about $1 billion, which Hoffman said would be available to help kick start the adult insurance plan in 2008, easing the burden on this year’s state budget. A pilot project isn’t an option, he said. Hoffman mentioned such other revenue sources as consolidating state funds and ending more corporate tax breaks.

But still, as the legislative leaders of both political parties look to fund construction projects through a gaming expansion — however they define expansion — they would have to swallow a health care plan in order to get the governor’s signature. “We would work on the health care piece, which is a prerequisite of signing any gaming bill, from other sources of revenue in the state of Illinois,” Hoffman said.

We also learned Friday that state legislators will have the day off Sunday, July 15, the first day since the governor has ordered them to be in Springfield every day since July 5 to negotiate an already delayed budget. But when lawmakers come back Monday, they’ll have 16 days before the current, one-month budget expires and threatens a state shutdown without another budget in place.

The threat of a state shutdown could be a good thing because it could force a compromise, according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. “There’s just constantly more and more people saying, ‘Why should we vote for another one-month budget?’” he said after the budget meeting. “I’m not for shutting the state government down, but to bring some sort of conclusion to this, some people think that may be the only solution.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed all caucuses want to avoid more 30-day budgets. “Those people probably have not contemplated what they would do if they were a leader and it’s the fifth day of August and paychecks aren’t going out,” he said. “I would hope that the end of the spending authority at the end of the month would move people toward a resolution.”

But he had this damper for people hoping to get that gaming bill: “It’s a very wide-ranging discussion. I wouldn’t put a lot of hope on it.”

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gaming discussed without the governor

The Senate is expected to recast its gaming bill that it originally approved May 31, the last day of the regular session. Now both Democrats and Republicans in that chamber are willing to expand gaming with one new riverboat in Chicago and up to three others anywhere else in the state. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. previously wanted to limit the new boats within certain distances from state borders. Now Rockford, Danville and other areas around Illinois would be able to bid on one of the new gaming licenses.

But there’s a lot of negotiating to be done before lawmakers decide where the boats would go and what the revenue would go toward. Education and major capital projects were the two priorities discussed in a closed-door meeting in the governor’s Statehouse office Thursday, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich wasn’t there. And his beloved health care idea wasn’t talked about.

The governor was in Chicago announcing a new executive order to prohibit insurance companies from basing premium increases on a client’s health status. Blagojevich’s absence changed the tone of the meeting in his office, the lawmakers said. “In fact, I think the governor would be a distraction today based on the feeling about him in this building,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who recently released his frustrations on the House floor about the governor’s leadership. Thursday’s meeting was more “business-like,” according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson.

But the gaming meeting didn’t advance any new legislation, and there's a long way to go. For years, a slew of hang-ups have stymied efforts to expand gaming for state revenue. The horseracing industry wants subsidies from the state so it can compete with expansion of other gaming. But there’s debate about the subsidy level and the mechanism — slots at racetracks or an “impact fee” charged on casinos. And there's a trust issue about whether the state will simply change the law after the first wave of cash flows in, said Rep. Bob Molaro, a Chicago Democrat in the meeting. Other sticking points include the number of new boats and their locations. Lang said in early June that his version of gaming legislation spelled out nine Chicago-area communities in need of economic development that would qualify for one of the new gaming licenses.

Two other complications were raised after the meeting. One was by House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego: “I think for everyone, one of the central questions here is, when would this money become available, assuming you bought into any of these concepts? We’re into July, and to get any of these things up and running, if you bought into that, you’d have to be pretty aggressive [for it] to be in the ’08 fiscal year.”

The other was mentioned by Sen. James DeLeo, another Chicago Democrat in the meeting. The priority of using gaming revenue for road and school construction projects might be more complicated. “We were warned by the budget director that casino revenues, gaming revenues are very hard to sell bonds on,” DeLeo said. “There’s a lot of if, if, ifs in gaming.”

So one of the lingering “ifs” is whether gaming will even appear in the final budget. If you need a refresher, here's where the key players stand on the gaming issue:
- The governor and Jones have said they support four new casinos in the Chicago area, and Jones has said he wants the money to go to education.
- Cross and House Speaker Michael Madigan said their caucuses still support expansion of gaming only at existing casinos, with the money going toward road and school construction projects.
- And Watson said Thursday the Senate GOP Caucus is open and flexible but would prefer the revenue fund a capital program.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Legislators: It's time to 'rock the system'

Bethany Carson contributed to this report
Several legislators are asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich to convene a special session specifically for ethics reform. Today, Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, led the group in an attempt to persuade the governor to add ethics and campaign finance reform to the list of topics to be addressed during this summer’s ongoing special sessions.

Until Wednesday, the special sessions called by the governor have focused on the much-delayed state budget. But Blagojevich Tuesday proclaimed today’s special session to focus on gun control, leading Radogno and Chicago Democratic Rep. John Fritchey to urge the governor to take the same steps to end pay-to-play politics.

"It may not be time to take up contentious legislation, but I'll tell you what, Governor, if you're serious about taking care of unfinished business, I've got a suggestion for you," Fritchey said Tuesday on the House floor. "There's a piece of legislation that's not contentious. There's a piece of legislation that was supported by every member of this chamber, the 117 of us that were there. That was House Bill 1, the bill that will end pay to play."

House Bill 1 is just one of three ethics reform measures stuck in the Senate. It would set a $25,000 limit on how much contractors could give to state officials who received state contracts.

In yesterday's budget talks at the governor’s mansion, Radogno said lawmakers confronted Blagojevich about why the legislature hasn't acted on ethics legislation in any of the special sessions. According to Radogno, the governor said they were going to get to it, that nothing comprehensive was out there and that he called HB 1 "inadequate." Radogno said, "This, mind you, from the same man that told us two years ago that he was going to ‘rock the system,’ He has done absolutely, positively nothing with regards to ethics reform in this state."

Blagojevich did enact an ethics package during his first term that requires all state employees to take an annual ethics exam and that created ethics inspectors general for each executive office.

Radogno went on to say that there are two other measures being held in the Senate rules committee that are comprehensive ethics reform bills. The House also has approved both HB 3 and SB 1305, which have yet to be called for action on the Senate floor.

"We can stay in session for more than 10 minutes to work on this very important topic, and we need to do that," Radogno said.

During the special sessions, the governor has continued to advocate for his proposals to increase education funding and to provide health care for the estimated 1.4 million uninsured Illinoisans. He also wants gun control legislation. However, Fritchey says the most dominant issues in our state and in the headlines hasn't been education funding or gun legislation. "Its scandals and allegations and indictments," he said Tuesday on the floor. "Tell people that when you said you wanted to rock the system, you meant it."

The governor continues to keep his lips sealed about the subpoenas received by his office from federal investigators. As of this posting, the governor's office hasn't responded to our question whether he plans to call a special session for ethics reform.

The governor's call to spend an entire special session on gun control (the eighth special session) backfired Wednesday. One sponsor of the gun control legislation, Chicago Democratic Rep. Harry Osterman, repeated what he's been saying for the past few days: He will not call the legislation for a vote until it has enough votes for approval. That will take 71, to which Osterman said, "This bill will not get 71 votes ... It would be irresponsible of me the sponsor of this legislation to call this bill for a vote, knowing that it's going to fail."

In fact, if the bill is amended to need only 60 votes, as Osterman intends to do, the effective date will be June of 2008. "June of 2008," he repeated on the House floor. "So if passed with 60 votes, it won't take effect until June. So there is no need to rush a vote today or tomorrow."

Osterman will have to work to gain the votes on the controversial measure, but, he said, "Today is not that day. We need to be focused on the budget of our state. That is our collective priority."

House members clapped as he closed his comments.

The governor responded with a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan that said, "I urge you to convene a Committee of the Whole to limit access to deadly large capacity ammunition clips. Giving the full House an opportunity to hear from law enforcement officials, anti-gun violence advocates and victims’ families will help us move closer to consensus on this important issue." He said he looked forward to working with the sponsor and the speaker's office to get the bill approved.

There was no leaders' meeting today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

No need for Republicans, but what about Democrats?

Despite more lawmakers’ comments that budget talks aren’t getting anywhere, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced an idea Tuesday night that he thinks could potentially break the nagging budget impasse. But his ideas still require major revenue enhancements, which continue to lack consensus among Democrats, let alone both parties.

Blagojevich isn’t giving up on his beloved universal health care idea or his desired education funding increase — two of many items that have contributed to the gap between his proposed budget and the much smaller version preferred by three of the four legislative leaders. At his Springfield mansion Tuesday night, Blagojevich simply suggested that the education and health care portions of his spending plan be separated from the fiscal year 2008 budget. They would then be packaged with a revenue plan, yet to be determined or agreed upon, and voted on so that the programs would become effective after June 1, 2008. That date is key because it means the legislation creating the programs would only need a simple majority, not the three-fifths majority that currently requires some Republican votes in the House.

Sen. Carol Ronen, a Chicago Democrat and Blagojevich point person in her chamber, stood with the governor after the meeting and said Republicans wouldn’t be needed because a simple majority of Democrats could enact new revenue ideas that would make money available just in time for the programs to start in 2008. But that assumes at least 30 Democrats in the Senate and 60 Democrats in the House would support anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion in new revenue. That’s not guaranteed. What makes this more questionable is that neither Republicans nor Democrats who support a smaller budget have any incentive to vote for education and health care plans they previously rejected just because the effective date changed.

The only other new information came with the idea that the lawmakers would break away from the rather large budget gatherings in the ballroom of the governor’s mansion and convene in smaller groups, which some GOP members suggested Monday.

Other than that, members said the meeting lacked progress but was full of drama, including the ongoing disagreements about new casinos and horse track subsidies and whether the state should invest in roads and schools before expanding health care and education. And, once again, the governor bashed House Speaker Michael Madigan by saying he hides behind his conservative Republican allies and needs to start acting like a Democrat. Of course, Madigan repeated his criticism of the governor’s “lack of understanding of the severity of the problem, the severity of the gap in understanding between the participants.” He added, “The governor came very close to losing his temper, but I tried to act like a father again. And he made a real nice recovery.”

The House members were told this afternoon that the remainder of July weekend sessions would convene at 9 a.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays.

Session on guns called

Gov. Rod Blagojevich ignored the concerns of some lawmakers and legislative leaders by calling a special session Wednesday that will focus on gun control.

Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie and Rep. John Bradley of Marion, both Democrats on opposite sides of the issue, said Monday that the governor’s special session on gun control was meant to further divide lawmakers. They, along with House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, agreed that any special sessions should focus on finalizing a state budget, which has been deadlocked since regular session ended May 31.

The governor’s proclamation made an attempt to tie gun control to the budget by saying the session would “consider and discuss Senate Bill 1007 as well as the impact of assault weapon violence on the state’s health care expenditures and general fiscal health.”

Here’s what we wrote about the legislation May 28:
Ban on some ammunition clips
A proposed ban on ammunition clips that shoot off more than 10 rounds won approval by a House committee. Supporters say the ban would ease the emotional and social costs of losing innocent victims of gun violence, while opponents say it would worsen economic loses when gun manufacturers move to other states. The emotional issue has continued to come up in Illinois since a 1994 federal ban on assault weapons and the high-capacity magazine clips expired. Such opponents as the National Rifle Association and downstate lawmakers trying to protect sport say the legislation is too broad and would ban some firearms without stopping plotted crimes like those at Virginia Tech this spring.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Iron out the differences

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the four legislative leaders and their caucus members can’t iron out their differences about budget priorities. But after five consecutive days of special sessions, we could start to get a hint soon of where House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross think the state should cut funding in the pending state budget.

At least 50 legislators joined the leaders and the governor in budget negotiations at the governor’s mansion again, but some said yesterday’s progress of starting to talk about actual numbers already stalled. “The governor’s position is: He wants health care,” Madigan said Monday evening after the meeting. “That puts us anywhere from $1 to $3 billion apart. There’s no change.”

While everyone agrees the state has a budget deficit, Madigan said Republicans and Democrats agree the budget hole exceeds the governor’s $800 million projection. Madigan also said there was a bipartisan proposal to evaluate the budget line by line to find out where state agencies can cut costs. He said the administration rejected that idea, but Deputy Gov. Sheila Nix said the governor actually welcomes the idea and hopes to see a list of proposed cuts.

Cross said he suggested looking to the 2004 budget. Lawmakers met into mid-July in overtime budget talks, and the state made across-the-board cuts in nonessential services excluding education, public safety and human services. He said that could save $200 to $300 million this time around. He also said more progress would be made in finalizing a budget if negotiations consisted of smaller groups, not the 50-plus groups in the governor’s mansion for the past few days.

Madigan had a more stinging comment about what it would take to make actual progress: “Good leadership. And it’s not here.”

The governor spent the early afternoon at a Chicago press conference about gun control, leading some lawmakers of both parties to speak out in opposition to the potential of the governor proclaiming a special session just to focus on the issue. Downstate and Chicago area lawmakers often have opposite stances on gun control, but two agreed Monday afternoon that the state budget should take precedence in the second month of overtime session and the seventh day of special sessions called by the governor.

“To bring a gun control issue to the floor at this time would only be for the purpose of deflecting our energies and deflecting the media away from what we’re doing here,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who supports such gun control measures. “I for one believe we should be concentrating on our budget and only on our budget until we get this work done.”

The governor did call a special session for Tuesday afternoon, when the topic will be “supportive living” for the elderly, the poor and the disabled.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Numbers on the table


Finally, there’s a number on the table for the budget. Unfortunately, lawmakers still can’t agree on what the number is.

The budgeteers submitted a report to the governor and the legislative leaders at the leader’s meeting today at the governor’s mansion. Legislators also were invited to attend.

“The report from the budgeteers appeared to be inconclusive,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said. “My expectation is that the governor will continue to work with the budgeteers to make the report more definitive, more concrete, which will better able us to move forward on this budget.”

While budget negotiations appeared to move forward, legislators still aren’t on the same page. “There was a piece of paper with numbers, and the numbers are the numbers, but in terms of the discussion, there was disagreement,” Madigan said.

Sen. Donne Trotter, his chamber’s budget expert, said so far, there’s an $874 million hole in the budget.

“Before we start talking about any kind of growth, we have to first recognize what that hole is and those responsibilities on payments we have to do, pensions and all that,” he said. “There’s certainly no dollars for expansion of education, no expansions for Illinois Covered or any kind of health care. No dollars for constitutional officers, and certainly no dollars for mass transportation, for [the] RTA with the hole.”

Regardless of the discourse in the room, Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson thought today’s meeting was productive. “This is a big first step,” he said.

Tomorrow the House will convene in the afternoon. It’s not clear if the Senate will actually meet. Today, the Senate met for about 10 minutes before adjourning. The House convened a meeting of the whole to hear testimony from the Teachers’ Retirement System that is scheduled to continue on Monday.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A leadership lunch


There wasn’t any progress on the budget at the Capitol today, but lawmakers will be back at it tomorrow.

Today’s special session in the House began with a debate on whether Speaker Michael Madigan was crossing the constitutional line by convening his chamber hours before the time that the governor requested. It ended with Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, asking what the constitutional grounds for impeachment are. His downstate colleague, Rep. William Black, a Danville Republican, quickly responded that he didn’t think that was the answer to the budget gridlock.

Before the Senate could convene at 2 p.m., pension experts and both chambers were invited to join the leader’s meeting at the governor’s mansion. Guests were served a pasta lunch before beginning a discussion about the state’s public employee pension liability. The media also was invited to the mansion, and was offered beverages, turkey sandwiches and an assortment of cookies while waiting in the downstairs governor's office to hear the outcome of the meeting. Some even had time to take a tour of the mansion.

The governor stepped out of the meeting to share some insight on how the meeting was going. “It’s a healthy, honest discussion, people expressing their views," he said. "It’s a healthy dialogue, it’s all good.”

Yesterday wasn’t as pleasant for the governor, as the House shot down a resolution to lease the Illinois Lottery. While the governor didn’t say he was backing away from his proposal to lease the Lottery for $10 billion and borrow an additional $16 billion to cover the state’s pension obligations, he said he was open to new ideas on how to accomplish that. However, he’s not backing down on providing health care for the state’s uninsured and increasing education funding.

“There’s give and take in this process all the time,” Blagojevich said. “You can’t get a budget without give and take. At the same time, you don’t abandon your principles and your values and your priorities. I’m not going to abandon education, I’m not going to abandon health care. I’m flexible on the means.”

Meanwhile House Speaker Michael Madigan, called on the the governor to reduce the rhetoric, a reference to the governor's’s charge that Madigan has become a conservative Republican.

“I simply call upon the governor to stop the personal insults,” he said. “I simply told him that I don’t think it accomplishes anything to be attacking me personally. It doesn’t help with what we’re trying to do with the budget. It doesn’t help relationships in the Capitol Building. I just hope he takes my advice to heart.”

The Republicans didn’t think much was accomplished today at the leader’s meeting.

“We’ve heard all this before,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said. “The bottom line is we need a leaders meeting, we need a few people to sit around in a room, take a piece of paper and a pencil and figure out how much money we have and how we’re going to spend it.”

The only agreement in the meeting today was that the budgeteers need to get together tomorrow and follow that up with a leaders meeting said Cross.

The budgeteers are schedule to meet tomorrow at 4 p.m. and a leaders meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Both chambers are scheduled to convene at 4 p.m. as well.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Resolution update

As it stands, the Illinois House doesn’t support the governor’s proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery. On a non-binding resolution, six members voted yes and 78 voted no late this afternoon.

Both chambers will meet over the weekend, as the governor has called another special session.

Mounting frustrations


In the morning, a group of representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle wanted to prevent this summer’s fiasco from happening again. In the afternoon, the governor met with Senate Democrats but continued to blame House Democratic leadership for the fiasco.

Lawmakers are agitated because legislative leaders did not meet yesterday or today to discuss the budget, and they’re ready to take action. “These [special] sessions, when we come to Springfield, should not be a waste of time,” Sen. James Meeks said. Meeks wants the legislative leaders and the governor to meet everyday and address the full General Assembly after each meeting. “We need a full account of what happened at each budget meeting,” he said.

Two separate measures have been introduced in the Senate to address further budget stalemate. If both chambers fail to approve a budget by July 1, SB1848 would allow the state to continue funding its obligations at the level of the previous year until a new budget is approved. The second measure, SB1849 would require the governor and all four legislative leaders to include the members of both chambers in budget negotiations on a daily basis.

The governor and the leaders also would have to share where they stand on any given proposal. Budget proposals would have to be posted on the state government website no later than two days after submission for the public to view, and would have to be physically given to legislators five days before it’s called for a vote.

“We expect more transparency and inclusion in the over all budget process,” Sen. Susan Garrett said. “Especially during special session when the tax-payers are footing the bill of $36,000 a day.”

It just so happens the Senate Democrats got their wish, because after both chambers recessed, the governor met with the Senate Democrats in President Emil Jones’ office to discuss funding for education and healthcare. But he was still focused on blaming House leadership for the special session.

“The reason we’re in overtime and special session is because the Democratic Speaker of the House Mr. Madigan has formed a coalition, an alliance, with the conservative Republican leader of the Senate,” Blagojevich said. “The way to be able to finally get budgets that achieve the objectives of healthcare and education for families is to get Mr. Madigan to be a Democrat again and stop being a George Bush Republican.”

The governor also said he is not leaning toward any single solution, but he's determined to make sure increasing education funding and healthcare is a part of the budget.

So far, the House and the Senate is scheduled to meet over the weekend. Stay tuned for more updates to see if the non-binding resolution on whether to support selling the Lottery is called for a vote later today.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Many questions, few answers

Even with no testimony from Gov. Rod Blagojevich and with few details provided on privatizing the state lottery, Illinois lawmakers could vote Friday on whether to give the governor authorization to do two things: 1) lease the lottery to a private firm for at least $10 billion and 2) issue $16 billion in bonds. Both are tactics to reduce state debt in the public employee pension systems.

Hours of testimony in a special House committee and in a separate Senate committee provided few answers for some of the biggest questions. For instance, many asked how much revenue the state would share with a private operator, as well as how the state would compensate for revenue lost by leasing the state asset. Lawmakers also expressed skepticism because only a handful of states are considering privatizing their lotteries, but none have actually done it.

“Do we want to be first, or maybe we’d be better off second or third?” said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, during the Senate committee.

Mark Florian, marketing director for Goldman, Sachs & Co., which is advising the governor’s office on the deal and stands to profit if the deal goes through, said the size of Illinois’ lottery makes this state a potential frontrunner. “People are going to stretch and stretch very, very hard [so] that there will be a premium, a trophy premium, to have access to this lottery system,” he told the committee. The Blagojevich Administration often cites estimated revenue at about $10 billion.

That’s exactly why some lawmakers questioned why the state would want to lease the lottery if it has so much potential for revenue growth, which would put more money into the state’s education system.

Some of the same questions came up during about 6 hours of questioning by a special committee of the entire House, in which the governor was invited to participate but declined. “I must confess that I believe you are more interested in playing games and taking solutions off the table than trying to find solutions to solve real problems,” he wrote in a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan that was shared with legislators and the media. A series of rather snippy letters have been exchanged between the speaker and the governor this week, continuing the gridlock that led Blagojevich to convene a special session seven days a week until a full state budget comes to fruition.

“If the governor believes this is a waste of time, I think that’s pathetic,” said Rep. Jack Franks after the House committee. The Woodstock Democrat came up with the idea to invite the governor to the committee of the entire chamber and led Thursday’s hearing. “I think it’s cowardly for him not to have been here after calling the [special] session.”

At the end of the business day, the House moved three pieces of legislation, one proposing the lease of the Illinois Lottery, one proposing the issuance of pension bonds and one nonbinding resolution urging the General Assembly to resolve pension reform and debt before the legislative session adjourns for good in 2007.

Tom Johnson, president of the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, said the administration was putting the cart before the horse because the lottery proposal comes up with a funding mechanism for state pension obligations before it addresses mounting pension liabilities. He said a better plan would evaluate the expense of the benefits offered as a way to cut costs. “The lottery is the taxpayers’ asset,” Johnson said. “The [pension obligation bond] debt will be the taxpayers’ debt.”

John Filan, chief operating officer, said with $41 billion in debt, “all solutions will be expensive, very expensive, and require major revenues.” When asked whether the governor’s initial gross receipts tax proposal was still on the table, Filan didn’t answer yes or no. He simply said the administration would consider other forms of business taxes, such as ending some corporate tax breaks.

The governor is not expected to appear before the House Friday, either.

Monday, July 02, 2007


\House Speaker Michael Madigan has challenged the governor to produce major budget legislation that will be debated and immediately voted on Thursday afternoon, the first day of a “special session” proclaimed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week.

The governor said Friday that the General Assembly would remain in special session until it approved an overdue state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. He said the first topic of discussion would be state public employee pension reform.

In a letter addressed to the governor and copied to the House members and the media Monday, Madigan and Rep. Jack Franks challenged Blagojevich to detail his proposal to lease the Illinois Lottery as a way to pump billions of dollars into the five public employee pension systems, which have been under-funded for years. Then Madigan plans for the chamber to vote on the proposal, giving the governor a deadline to produce the legislation.

Part of the letter to Blagojevich reads, “It is, therefore, your responsibility to have the necessary legislation drafted and submitted to us in a timely fashion — no later than 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 5.”

Another part of the letter rebuts the governor’s public criticism of the lawmakers’ three-day workweek and lack of focus on the budget. It says the Committee of the Whole format would allow maximum participation and media observance, another comment reportedly made by the governor during backdoor budget meetings. The letter goes on to call the governor out on alleged hypocrisy.

“Over the last six months, from the moment our members took office for the 95th General Assembly, and despite your general absence from the State Capitol during most of that time, they have remained ready and available to work with you for the purposes of crafting a fiscal year 2008 budget,” the letter reads.

Franks, a Woodstock Democrat who often vocally disagrees with the governor’s ideas, said he brought up the idea to the speaker after a month of overtime session and closed-door “negotiations” produced nothing but a one-month, bare bones budget. On his cell phone Monday afternoon, Franks said, “Why don’t we try something different? Why don’t we make a transparent process, put it on the House floor, bring the governor in, make him produce bills, let him defend those bills, and then we will vote on them after the legislature has a chance to ask questions?”

Franks held a committee about leasing the Illinois Lottery earlier this spring and said the administration didn’t provide many details back then. “Whenever you have $10 billion on the table. Your antenna’s going to go up,” Franks said. “From what I’ve seen on the merits of the proposal, it doesn’t hold water." Madigan said last month he didn’t think the idea had enough support in his chamber.

If the governor accepts the invitation — we haven’t heard from the governor’s office, yet — the letter says the Committee of the Whole will “last as long as necessary.”

Response from the governor's office: "This is exactly the kind of dialogue and direct involvement from legislators we were hoping for by calling special sessions," Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said in an e-mail.