Two major questions remain unanswered after House Speaker Michael Madigan issued a letter pledging support for a mass transit compromise. The plan would prevent drastic service cuts in the Chicago area and boost funding for downstate services (it would increase the state assistance for downstate transit agencies from 55 percent of operating costs to 70 percent. See my November article for more on that).
Hot-button questions for Wednesday’s special session:
1) Madigan agreed to the general idea of diverting the state’s portion of the sales tax on gasoline in Cook County to meet the region’s transit needs, but here's the question: How will the state plug the estimated $385 million hole in the general revenue fund, which is like the state’s main checkbook?
2) How likely are downstate lawmakers to support this newfound compromise if it isn’t coupled with a long-awaited capital plan to address mass transit, roads, bridges and schools?
Madigan’s letter cited a “genuine crisis,” and said, “This compromise will put an end to the piecemeal cash infusions, months of anxiety for transit riders and workers, and the incessant, and unfortunate, legislative drama that has surrounded this issue for the past several months.”
That would be the day, but the compromise will include changes and will open the door for more troublesome negotiations in the future.
According to Madigan, the House will advance the legislation supported by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, but it’ll include amendments. The speaker vowed those changes would not increase the general sales tax in the Chicago region or allow the Chicago City Council raise its real estate transfer tax, as proposed in Rep. Julie Hamos’ legislation. Blagojevich opposes that plan. According to the letter, the compromise legislation will include such pension reforms as requiring higher employee contributions, increasing the retirement age and limiting some health care benefits.
As far as plugging the hole in the state’s general fund, Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, mentioned the governor’s proposal to end some corporate tax breaks. “The speaker has been supportive of closing corporate loopholes in the past,” Brown said. “I suspect it’ll be something that will be addressed down the road. I don’t envision that being addressed this week.” He said the state Constitution limits the legislature to discussing a specific topic designated by the special session.
According to Cross’ spokesman, David Dring, the House Republican Caucus perceives Madigan’s letter as a positive step, but members hope the speaker won’t stop working with them on a capital plan. Dring said the House GOP Caucus also will discuss Wednesday how members feel about ways to plug the general revenue hole. Previous ideas have included increasing the tax on cigarettes, which Dring said wasn’t so popular. But there’s also transferring money from other state funds or slightly increasing fares for the CTA, Metra and Pace services.
Either way, Wednesday could generate more questions than answers.