Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No action sets the stage for another show

Compromise would be a welcomed word during this 6th month of overtime session, but Wednesday’s special session — the 17th called by Gov. Rod Blagojevich this year — exemplified the “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” game played by legislative leaders and caucuses, said Rep. Bob Molaro, a Chicago Democrat. He provided comic relief with a candid and blunt analysis during a committee hearing Wednesday night.

The daily news is that the House shot down a mass transit plan that was backed by the governor and drafted by House Republicans. It was altered by House Democrats, and House Speaker Michael Madigan urged lawmakers to support it as an “act of compromise.” But the bigger picture is that the mass transit plan was doomed from the start. By letting it die in the House, the speaker demonstrated that yet another one of the governor’s plans failed.

It’s all come down to two issues: 1) How to save Chicago-area mass transit from cutting services and raising fares and 2) how to finance an infrastructure program for roads, bridges and schools statewide.

“There’s a lack of trust on many fronts,” said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat. He was one of nine senators who reiterated Wednesday that he wouldn’t vote for a mass transit plan without a capital plan. “We need an assurance that both of these issues will be addressed, and the only way we see to do that is if they’re done at the same time.”

Madigan said he’s continuing to negotiate on a capital plan, which would rely on gaming expansion to pay for the bonds. But he said he refuses to tie gaming to mass transit. On the other hand, once a gaming-for-capital plan drops, downstate members of both political parties would be more likely to approve a mass transit plan.

While Madigan said he was “disappointed” Wednesday night, the failure of the "compromise" plan could revive another measure that the speaker prefers, Rep. Julie Hamos’ measure. It previously failed but is preferred by Madigan for its “regional approach” with a sales tax increase in the Chicago area, as opposed to the compromise plan that would have taken money from the state’s general revenue from the sales tax on gas.

Hamos’ measure was framed as the lesser of two evils in debate Wednesday night — Molaro joked that it was “the greatest bill that never passed" — but the governor repeatedly vowed to veto the measure because it raises general taxes. Hamos pointed out, however, that lawmakers will have to make some tough votes whether they vote to save mass transit by increasing the sales taxes in Chicago or by diverting general revenue from the sales tax on gas.

I’ve given up on timetables and deadlines for legislative action, but pressure points will start to pop in December if lawmakers don’t deal with at least mass transit. Besides risking angering Chicago-area voters who would be affected by fare increases, lawmakers from all parts of the state risk being stuck in Springfield during the thick of campaign season due to the early primary election, February 5.

Lawmakers return to the Statehouse Thursday, when the governor called another special session Thursday to focus on mass transit funding with a capital plan.

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