Friday, October 12, 2007

"There's always next year"

The state is starting to look a lot like the Chicago Cubs in dropping the ball and saying it’ll get the job done next year. The Illinois General Assembly finished its annual fall session Friday without addressing two of the big-ticket items that have divided the legislative leaders and the governor all session: capital construction projects and mass transit subsidies. House Speaker Michael Madigan said he’d give his members seven days’ notice before calling them back to Springfield to act on some leftover business from the regular spring session, which, by the way, still hasn’t ended. It was supposed to end in May. Here’s what they did do during the six days of so-called veto session:

Budget overrides The Senate restored $7.9 million of the $470 million cut out of the state budget by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said Thursday that the move was to restore dollars that were “inadvertently cut out of the budget.” The move restored the original funding levels for the offices of the attorney general, the auditor general and such other legislative bodies as the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and the legislative research and information bureaus, as well as the Illinois courts. Budget negotiator and Chicago Democratic Sen. Donne Trotter said the Senate can come back and approve more overrides or a supplemental budget bill when the state’s revenue forecasts improve. (See the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s monthly report that says sales tax revenue has declined and the latest comparative study that says Illinois has lagged behind most other states in economic growth.)

Property taxes The Senate president was the lone “no” vote when the his chamber overwhelmingly agreed with the House to override the governor’s changes to the so-called 7 percent solution. The program, which started in 2004, caps the taxable amount of residential properties’ assessed values, which started skyrocketing in 2000. As approved by both chambers, this session’s legislation extended the assessment caps another three years and raised the homeowner's exemption, on a sliding scale, to as much as $33,000 from an earlier high of $20,000. The governor used an amendatory veto to change the legislation by extending the homeowners’ exemption limit up to $40,000 and by making the 7 percent rule permanent. Because both chambers overrode the governor’s action, the original legislation immediately became law. Taxpayers can expect to receive their tax bills by November 1. The county can expect to receive payments by December 1. However, such lawmakers as Sen. Terry Link, the Waukegan Democrat who sponsored the legislation, favor making the program permanent. But he and others agreed to override the governor’s changes because a) if they didn’t agree with the House, then the measure would have died, and b) some questioned the constitutionality of the governor’s use of an amendatory veto to make such sweeping changes. Link says he’ll pursue legislation that would make the 7 percent solution permanent.

Moment of silence Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, passionately spoke against the House and Senate approving a mandatory moment of silence to start each school day. “At least in that moment of silence, they can pray that the General Assembly finally sends them the money that they need,” Black said, referring to schools waiting for their belated state aid payments caught up in a political battle between Madigan and Jones, who is aligned with the governor. The moment of silence may be required, but there aren't any penalties for disobeying the rule. It’s immediately effective.

What’s next? There is no schedule for lawmakers to come back to the Capitol, but the House does have a public hearing scheduled for October 17 in Chicago to discuss the gaming-for-capital bill approved by the Senate. It would create three new casinos to pay for road and school construction projects and some mass transit subsidies, but it has been labeled as too aggressive by some House Republicans and by the speaker. It may well be next year before the legislative leaders set aside their differences and agree on capital and mass transit plans.

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