Friday, November 02, 2007

The $27 million deal

The end of the seemingly endless legislative session could be near if all goes by Thursday night’s seven-to-10-day promise. It started when Chicago-area mass transit officials announced a temporary budget solution that averts a “doomsday” scenario that would have terminated 600 workers and drastically increased fares on Sunday. The “solution” was a fiasco that didn’t peak until 3 p.m. Friday when the federal government approved a plan announced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich just hours before. But it’s not just a Chicago-area issue. The budget fix, even if only temporary, has statewide importance because it opens the door for a much-delayed agreement between the state’s top legislative leaders and the governor on long-awaited plans to fund road and school construction projects across the state.

Jim Reilly, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority in northeastern Illinois, said the federal government had to approve the plan to divert $27 million in federal capital dollars to cover the agency’s operating expenses. The grant — not a loan — is supposed to be enough for the RTA, the Chicago Transit Authority and suburban Pace bus services to operate through the end of the year.

According to Blagojevich, the diversion of federal capital dollars for operating costs has been done in the past. Blagojevich said he plans to replace those federal funds with available state capital bond money. “By replacing converted federal capital money with state capital money, there will be no loss to either CTA or Pace’s capital plan,” he wrote in a release before talking to reporters outside of his Statehouse office.

Ron Huberman, executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, said at the Capitol that the scheme does avert a doomsday scenario, but it doesn’t solve the structural deficit that plagues the agency’s pension system and angers its union workers. Chicago Federation of Labor president Dennis Gannon added that the pension problem will only make the mass transit system worse if not addressed in the long term.

Reilly of the RTA said he trusts the legislative leaders to come up with a long-term solution. “I believe that commitment,” he said, crediting House Minority Leader Tom Cross for becoming a mediator of sorts between House Speaker Michael Madigan, the governor and his ally, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson.

On the House floor, Cross said, “This may not be the best solution, but it’s what is here and now and available, and I support it in the interest of keeping the system running.”

The next step to ending the sixth months of overtime session is to draft an agreed capital program for road and school construction around the state. That, however, involves the expansion of gaming, a contentious and complicated subject. The legislative leaders are on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of the size and scope of the revenue sought. There’s also disagreement on the spending side. The Senate version approved in September includes money for education and mass transit, neither of which Madigan wants to tie to gaming. Cross bears the burden of ironing out their differences.

“We have a lot to discuss,” he said from the floor. “As far as I’m concerned, what came over from the Senate isn’t what we’re going to work off of. We will start over.”

Cross and Madigan will meet frequently over the next seven to 10 days, but the House and Senate members left Springfield Friday and won’t be called back until the pending gaming and capital plans are ready.

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