Thursday, September 27, 2007

All on board?

When state lawmakers return to Springfield Monday, there could be more momentum behind a gaming-for-capital plan than there was at the beginning of this nearly nine-month session. The pressure is on for lawmakers to approve a capital bill to finance road and school construction projects and a plan to address mass transit shortfalls. Now House Republicans have changed their tune and indicated a willingness to consider the creation of a Chicago casino to pay for a capital plan. That leaves only House Speaker Michael Madigan to hop on the bandwagon of a Chicago casino. That's not expected.

The potential support among House Republicans also is unlikely to shore up enough votes to approve a three-casino plan passed by the Senate earlier this month. That idea was crafted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who did not seek input from House Democrats or Republicans before sending it to the floor for a vote. Members of both political parties approved the deal. Now it’s waiting to be considered by the House.

Cross, who convened a Chicago meeting about gaming with the three other legislative leaders and the governor Wednesday, said the Senate’s gaming-for-capital plan “needs a lot of work.” “I’m not comfortable with three new licenses,” he said in a phone conversation Thursday. “Our caucus has had some interest in the increased positions, and I think reluctantly, as this process has evolved, is open to the Chicago idea.” He added there are a few House Republicans who like the idea of granting three new gaming licenses because it would give their downstate districts an opportunity to build one of the new riverboats.

Cross said the push for a capital bill isn’t about getting money for individual projects. “The roads need repair, the bridges, the school construction plan, the higher ed facilities — the needs are great. So it’s not individual member projects. It’s just the legitimate needs that exist around the state.” The focus of the caucus will be to agree on a way to generate about $1 billion for the state’s share of a $10 billion capital plan. Cross added, “I think with increased positions and Chicago that you can probably get there.”

Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator for his caucus, said lawmakers shouldn’t get their hopes up. Not only is approving three new casinos going to be a tough sell in the House, he said approving new licenses doesn’t produce immediate gratification. He said while the state would get an initial big check in exchange for a new license, it would have no idea when the gambling facility would be up and running or whether its revenue would live up to expectations.

He added the Senate’s revenue estimates from its gaming plan are “very optimistic.” “It really is just anybody’s guess about what this thing in Chicago could generate. I don’t know that we can make those kinds of dollars. And if we don’t, we basically borrowed a big bunch of money and ask some future generation to find a way to pay it off because we gave them an insufficient revenue stream.”

And then there’s Madigan, who may be for a Chicago casino under the right but unlikely circumstances. His spokesman, Steve Brown: “In terms of a city-owned casino that meets all of the city requirements, if that ever came up by itself, I assume the speaker would support it. No expectation it ever will.” He also cited the Senate’s gaming bill as an example of a typical plan that has kernel of an idea but gets bogged down by various demands and falls over on its own weight.

The speaker is considering scheduling public hearings to air out gaming proposals, but there’s no schedule or format for any hearings right now, according to Brown. The House first will focus on some $470 million budget cuts made by the governor last month. The fun begins Monday with a special committee of the entire House. The chamber is expected to override those budget cuts when it convenes for the annual fall session Tuesday.

Throughout the two-week “veto session,” the General Assembly also is expected to consider mass transit subsidies and Chicago property tax relief. But there’s no indication the regular legislative session will end there.

No comments: