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.”

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