Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Utility campaign contributions

The House conducted a rare Committee of the Whole Tuesday that included hours of testimony about Illinois’ electricity rates. Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois customers have experienced increases ranging from 24 percent to as high as 300 percent (anecdotally) since a decade-long freeze was lifted on electric rates in January. A lot of downstate legislators have gotten earfuls from constituents, particularly those who use only electrical power. The electric-only customers of Ameren Illinois have been hit the hardest, leading Democrats and Republicans to raise a storm of opposition to the current rate-setting process.

Those lawmakers want immediate action, but the committee didn’t take a vote on any proposed solutions (the most recent being Rep. George Scully’s House Bill 1750 that would reinstate the rate freeze and refund customers with interest). The governor wasn’t present, and the Senate wasn’t involved. There’s no telling how long a compromise to relieve electricity rates could take, if it could happen at all this session. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. has said he opposes reinstating a rate freeze.

The debate has become particularly political because the major utilities have a huge stake in the outcome, and they’ve been putting their money where their mouth is by donating to political campaigns in recent elections.

The Campaign for Political Reform says Commonwealth Edison is a “career patron” of Senate President Emil Jones, Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson and House Republican Leader Tom Cross. Records from the group’s Sunshine Database show ComEd gave $2,429,000 from January 1, 1993, through June 30, 2006, to candidates for Illinois statewide candidates and legislative candidates. Of that, 53 percent was contributed to Republicans.

Cross also received $22,000 from Ameren Illinois’ political action committee in 2005 and 2006. House Speaker Michael Madigan received $50,000 total from Ameren Illinois between 2003 and 2006. He also received $15,000 from the interest group for Dynegy, the utility that purchased Illinois Power before it merged with Ameren Illinois the election cycle before that.

You can find more campaign donations at the Campaign for Political Reform’s Sunshine Database.

For more context on the electricity challenge faced by state officials, see our December blogs and our feature about the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Nothing has gone as planned this week, so here are some links that could be useful throughout the spring session. They provide thinking points about 1) the Illinois GOP, 2) Illinois poverty and 3) Illinois' financial health (and other major policy issues).

1) The House Republican’s new brainstorming Web site

2) The Illinois Poverty Summit’s 2007 report (More information here)

3) The Institute of Government and Public Affairs’ 2007 report (IGPA is a public policy research unit comprised of researchers at the University of Illinois' three campuses.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Obama for president

Thousands of people — kids in snow pants, adults in long johns — saw U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s breath as he said the highly anticipated words, "Today, I announce my candidacy for the president of the United States," on the backdrop of the Old State Capitol in Springfield Saturday morning.

They heard him propose a form of universal health care by the end of the next president’s term and promise a plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by March 2008. But they didn't hear any details of the plans. You can listen here.

He entered the stage with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters. One of the first thing he said: “We all made this journey for a reason. It’s humbling to see a crowd like this, but in my heart I know you didn’t just come here for me (some people yelled, ‘Yes we did’). No. You came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politic that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching out for one possible, building that more perfect union. That’s the journey we're on today.”

He smiled and laughed throughout the rest of his speech, but when he spoke of Iraq, his voice was low, deliberate and calm. When he spoke of health care and ethics in government, he raised his voice and his volume to rekindle the crowd. By far, the most energetic responses were to his comments about establishing universal health care and removing troops from a civil war in Iraq.

The scene fit the image of a presidential campaign: a huge American flag hung the Pease’s Fine Candies building with others between the pillars of a bank. Supporters waved blue Obama signs. Guards with bulletproof vests and binoculars surveyed the crowd from the top of three buildings.

The public gathered a couple of hours before gates opened 9 a.m. State, federal and local officials filled the gates first. Some people came to see “history in the making,” a common phrase this morning. Others were skeptics who wanted to see what was the big deal about Obama. One anti-abortion group held graphic signs and chanted against Obama’s belief that a woman has the right to choose to have an abortion.

The number of media was amazing. Some crews waited in line as early as 3:30 a.m. to secure a good spot when the media gates opened at 5 a.m. Local and international reporters from as far as Japan stood on three, multi-level stages lining the grounds. A British reporter told me that he would expect this size of a gathering in the final stretch of a presidential run, but not the first. Canadian reporter Beth Gorham, Washington correspondent for the Canadian Press, said people in her country feel curious about the potential of the first black or first woman president of the United States. She said people also were simply interested in knowing more about the man behind the buzz.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield, stepped onto the stage first and introduced Obama. Without saying Obama was the next Abraham Lincoln, Durbin did say Lincoln’s journey included skeptics who wondered whether he could meet the challenges of his time. Earlier, Durbin said Obama’s life experiences would inspire people to support him. “To rise to the position of being the editor of the Harvard Law Review, that says a lot. And then to make the decision not to cash in and make a lot of money as a lawyer, but rather become a civil rights lawyer working for poor people in the city of Chicago, community organizer, all these things tell me where his values are.”

After the event, Gov. Rod Blagojevich told one group of reporters after another: “The whole thing was great, especially his focus on health care for everybody. That’s a tremendous objective. Our objective is to get it done here in Illinois. So when Sen. Obama becomes president, all he has to do it get it done in 49 states instead of 50.”

State Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, said he thinks Obama has a “great chance” to appeal to the masses because he's "uniter, not a divider." He added that he thinks Obama is not a political insider tainted by lobbying dollars.

Bethany’s perspective
I’ve never been so thankful for hand warmers and soccer socks. It was so cold that ink froze in my pens (good thing I had a few pencils), battery juice froze in my camera, and my digital recorder was stuck in the “on” position. I was lucky enough to score a good spot by one of the media stages. I knew what to expect with the size of the crowd, but it started to hit me just how big this day was when I felt the entire audience take a deep breath and stand on its toes when Durbin welcomed Obama to the stage, the music picked up and he came closer into view.

It was pretty neat standing among so many people from so many countries listening to an Illinois senator announce a presidential bid. Yet, many people don't know that much about Obama or his political stances, allowing them to assign any ideal identity to the candidate. We'll have to see how he rides the wave.

Deanese’s perspective
Seven out of eight people I spoke with had the facts wrong about today’s events. The majority believed that Obama was making history by being the first African American to announce a presidential run. Not to shame any of his supporters, but it’s not true. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosley Braun and Shirley Chisholm have all made steps towards the White House in earlier races. Chisholm was actually the first African American to announce her bid for the presidency on Jan. 23, 1972.

Friday, February 09, 2007


Pressure is mounting for Illinois to milk the cow this year. Lawmakers need a long-term plan to pay for education, transportation, health care and public employee pensions, but there’s disagreement about which cash cow to milk.

HB/SB 750 tax reform
Sen. James Meeks reintroduced a so-called tax swap plan to raise income taxes, lower property taxes and expand the sales tax as a way to fairly fund education and significantly pay down the state’s pension obligations.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, says the bottom 60 percent of income earners would not pay more in income taxes than they are now. And the money they saved in property taxes would be intended to offset the cost of sales taxes on consumer services, such as auto repair labor and haircuts.

Martire adds that the property tax relief would total $2.7 billion statewide. “No school district loses a penny,” he says.

He says the drafters of the legislation tried to “depoliticize” the distribution of the money. Of the state’s $5 billion net revenue, $720 million would go to downstate schools, $420 million to Chicago schools, $400 million to suburban Chicago schools, and $300 million for higher education.

Depoliticize is a bold word, considering this year's budget debate is expected to be a doozy. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has repeatedly said he would veto an increase in state taxes. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. also said on Inauguration Day that he definitely opposes expansion of the sales tax to consumer services. But he did leave the door open to other revenue ideas. “We do not have a spending problem. We have a revenue problem,” Jones said.

Good or bad, he'll have plenty of “creative” revenue ideas to consider.

Privatizing the lottery and the tollway
The governor is still considering selling the Illinois Lottery to fund a $6 billion plan to pump more money into education, school buildings, teacher quality and books. But the plan doesn't address pensions.

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, is still considering privatizing the Illinois Tollway (scroll down to the August 29, 2006, blog) as a way to raise lots of money to pay the state’s unfunded pension liabilities and transportation costs. However, he said on Inauguration Day that he is convinced the state should not sell the tollway, but maintain majority ownership. He said the next step is to work with the Illinois attorney general’s office to get insight on the legal dimensions of such a lease.

Sen. Bill Brady’s solution to the pension liability problem is giving current state employees an option to participate in a self-managing plan (like a 401-k) that mirrors the private sector retirement options. New state employees would have to participate in the self-managed plan. The board of trustees of each of the five retirement systems would select up to seven companies where state employees could choose to invest their money as they wished. Brady, a Bloomington Republican, says it would save taxpayer money, reduce political influence on state investment decisions and prevent the state from raiding the five pension systems to pay for general state costs.

More to come
There’s also more creative — read politically risky — revenue ideas to come, potentially targeting businesses as one way to pay for the governor’s promised plan of universal health care. He gives his combined State of the State address and his budget address March 7.

Deanese Williams-Harris contributed to this post.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Budget buzz

Budget will be No. 1
Anything the Illinois General Assembly wants to accomplish this session will revolve around the state budget. Gov. Rod Blagojevich will propose the budget for fiscal year 2008 on March 7 (in combination with his State of the State address). Three challenges — taxes, pensions and Medicaid bills — could trump the buzz about some of his new proposals for social programs.

We already know gaming and privatization are options for new state revenue. Raising taxes is not, according to the governor.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., on the other hand, have each mentioned the possibility of tax reform. One panel of budget analysts considered some possibilities Tuesday. (The panel was part of a series of luncheons sponsored by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Center for State Policy and Leadership.)

While the panel members’ comments echoed reports by the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the panel also highlighted some ideas for tax reform.

Economics Professor Patricia Byrnes at the University of Illinois at Springfield says the state is missing the boat in taxing Internet sales. In 2008, she says Illinois can expect to miss out on $622 million to $900 million in collections from Internet sales. That’s about 2.8 percent to 4.4 percent of sales tax collections.

That combines with the state’s sales tax being too narrow. She says Illinois currently taxes only 17 of 164 services. And unlike the governor’s budget office, Byrnes says she wouldn’t focus on corporate taxes. Instead, she would focus on the state income tax, which she called the least progressive because it’s a flat rate for all incomes. She recommends increasing the tax rate up to 5 percent and increasing the reasons for personal exemptions.

According to economics Professor J. Fred Giertz of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the political question this session is whether lawmakers would override a governor’s veto and raise taxes without his support, particularly when a tax increase simply would generate more money for the governor to spend on his programs. Giertz says that’s “unlikely.”

State Sen. Christine Radogno, the Senate Republican’s rising budget expert (and unsuccessful candidate for state treasurer last year), says another big question this session is whether lawmakers would have the political will to implement changes that would have delayed gratification.

She adds the public has no confidence in state government to spend money responsibly if Illinois general taxes were to increase.

The next portion was written by Deanese Williams-Harris, the Public Affairs Reporting intern working in the Statehouse with Bethany Carson. The Chicago native joins us from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where she was a McNair Scholar.

Education will be No. 2
The legislature’s new Education Caucus met Monday afternoon and debated whether the group’s reform efforts should focus on elementary education, higher education or both.

Rep. Dave Winters, a Shirland Republican, opened the debate to whether the caucus should focus on K-12 to avoid being distracted by higher education.

Rep. Robert Pritchard, a Sycamore Republican overseeing the meeting, quickly rebutted, saying, “Illinois has always had a disconnect between pre-school, K-12 and higher education. We need to make those connections now.”

He recalled a recent visit to one of the state’s juvenile detention centers and said it was heartbreaking to see kids getting less than two hours of education or skill development.

“We need to develop a system that does it right the first time so that kids don’t get discouraged and drop out and don’t turn to a life of crime,” he said.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Yes, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the name game of Team Blagojevich-Schwarzenegger that met in California yesterday. But they made environmental announcements that show promise, according to the Environment Illinois advocacy group.

Rebecca Stanfield, Environment Illinois state director, says it’s significant that Illinois partnered with the “Golden State” because California has already enacted some of the policies recommended in the Illinois group’s report to reduce global warming emissions.

For instance, she says California was the first state to set carbon dioxide emission standards for cars made in 2009 and beyond. That law was approved in 2002 under the former governor. Last summer, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also approved a cap on greenhouse gas emissions (coupled with reporting requirements) so statewide levels would return to 1990 levels by 2020.

Stanfield says there’s no doubt the auto industry would fight tooth an nail against a CO2 standard for cars (they’ve already taken their case to Supreme Court), but she hopes that consumer demand for clean cars could heighten the chances that CO2 standards could be adopted in Illinois.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich released another statement today touting his anti-pollution programs, including the creation of the Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group that has to make recommendations to the governor by July 30 this year. Last summer, Blagojevich also unveiled an energy plan to invest in renewable fuels (corn and soybeans) and wind power. And he caps his accomplishments with this week’s announcement of BP PLC funding of the Energy Biosciences Institute that promises up to $100 million for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s research on converting plants to fuel.

This all comes on the heels of an international panel’s declaration that human behavior, particularly burning of fossil fuels, “very likely” causes global warming. Fossil fuels emit CO2, the most important greenhouse gas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change created by the United Nations.

BP invests in UI, biofuel development - News