Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An exercise in futility?

In a mostly rosy display of bipartisan cooperation (with some thorns in the Senate president’s side), the Senate approved an all-in-one deal to create three new casinos as a way to pay for a capital plan. That $25 billion plan would finance road and school construction projects and provide a one-year subsidy for Chicago mass transit systems. Not everyone was happy. Worse, they predict trouble in the other chamber.

“I think it’s fine and dandy that we can be here and doing this,” said Sen. William Delgado, a Chicago Democrat and Latino Caucus leader. “But this is just an exercise in futility because it’s dead on arrival [in the House].” The House wasn’t represented in the past two weeks of negotiations and isn’t expected to support that large of a gaming expansion.

The Senate version of a gaming plan would license a new land-based casino in Chicago and two new riverboats elsewhere in the state. Side note: Despite an earlier version, this plan would require all casinos to abide by the statewide smoking ban that starts in January.

A large part of the gaming revenue would subsidize mass transit with $425 million over three years. The Regional Transportation Authority, which includes the Chicago Transportation Authority, Metra rail services and Pace suburban bus services, has been threatening to lay off hundreds of workers and cut services if the state doesn’t lend a helping hand. The deal would grant the agency $200 million for operating funds in the first year (downstate would get $30 million). The catch is that if the General Assembly doesn’t come up with a way for the RTA to generate a long-term revenue source, then the RTA does not have to repay the $200 million.

Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the gaming bill, said this plan would buy time for the General Assembly and the governor to work out a long-term funding solution for mass transit, and it avoids raising the sales tax in the Chicago area. “With this route, if you don’t play, you don’t pay. If you don’t go to the boats, it’s not costing you a nickel,” Hendon said earlier Tuesday. “And I think that’s the best way and the fiscally responsible way, the prudent way, to help the people of this state.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan, on the other hand, favors the regional sales tax for the long-term solution. He has also repeatedly said there’s not enough support in his chamber to approve a deal for new casinos. The House could tweak the Senate’s plan to do a limited expansion of gaming, but that risks being shot down in the Senate again. As Hendon said, “I just hope the House doesn’t tweak so much ‘till it’s dead on arrival when it gets over here.”

The governor said in a Statehouse press conference Tuesday night that he still opposes a regional sales tax increase and favors ending a series of business tax breaks to generate revenue.

So we have the governor, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson on the same page. But then there’s Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross on a separate page, and they may not even agree with each other on a gaming for capital and mass transit plan. Veto session will provide the next chance to see how close (or if) the four legislative leaders and the governor can come to a compromise.

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