Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Feds recast FutureGen's future

FutureGen isn’t dead, yet. But it’s dead as we know it. The 13 energy companies that formed the FutureGen Alliance and selected Mattoon as the host of the groundbreaking project also isn’t dead, yet. In fact, Mattoon and the Alliance could land another version of the multibillion-dollar project with state-of-the art technology for cleaner energy production if they go through another long, detailed, competitive bidding process. And the Alliance would have to come up with a way to fund it other than borrowing, as it proposed in the original FutureGen deal with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced in a conference call Wednesday that a new approach to FutureGen would be an “all around better deal for America” for less money and less risk. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the department would start from scratch, seeking new bids for new projects that would a) allow for commercial operation of clean coal plants, b) use multiple locations and c) sequester “double the amount” of carbon dioxide emissions than proposed in 2003. (That’s when President George W. Bush unveiled the original FutureGen plan.) The restructured FutureGen also would aim to generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes, more than the FutureGen projection, and faster.

New plants would be operational by 2015. Interested applicants have until March 3 to submit proposals.

The halt on federal funding for the original FutureGen site started to trickle down when the FutureGen Alliance announced Mattoon as the selected site in December. In fact, the Energy Department urged the Alliance not to continue with the announcement because of funding and feasibility concerns and didn’t attend the unveiling in Washington, D.C.

The concerns, according to DOE’s Deputy Secretary Clay Sell, focus on the cost estimates nearly doubling to $1.8 billion and drastic changes in clean-coal technology in the past five years. He said more than 33 companies are seeking permits to build plants that use similar technology that could do what made FutureGen so promising: generate electricity and hydrogen from coal and then sequester the carbon dioxide emissions underground rather than releasing them as air pollutants. The costs and the market changes underpinned the decision to take a different approach, Sell said.

It really didn’t help that the FutureGen Alliance proposed that its share of the costs would be financed by mortgage loans. “Quite simply, the financing approach advanced by the FutureGen Alliance would place interests of U.S. taxpayers at risk to that of private mortgage holders,” Sell said. “This would represent a substantial departure from DOE practice for projects which the government bears a majority of costs. And we think it would significantly and unduly increase taxpayer risk.” Ultimately, the feds and the Alliance couldn’t agree on a way to restructure FutureGen.

But what if costs escalate just as they did for the original project? “I can’t guarantee anything five years in the future, and neither can anyone in the Congress,” Sell said. Responding to the Illinois delegation’s harsh words that the feds put the kibosh on Mattoon’s version of the FutureGen, Sell added that the administration has much more confidence that the new approach wouldn’t suffer the same fate.

He also quashed skepticism that the administration pulled the plug on the Mattoon site as retribution for the project not landing in the president’s home state of Texas, as well as the notion that the DOE conveniently set a timeline that coincides with the end of Bush’s term. “Had I wanted to just wash my hands of this, I would have let it go. And the folks of Mattoon, Ill., could have continued to celebrate this for a year or maybe two years. And then when the thing went south, I could have blamed it on the next administration for failing to bring this great idea to fruition. But we recognized that we had a problem. We recognized that we needed to restructure it.”

So now the feds have to deal with the persistent Illinois Congressional delegation, as well as the state legislature and the governor, who all vow to fight for Mattoon and FutureGen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Energy bust

It very well could be too good to be true for Mattoon and the state, which lost federal support of the groundbreaking FutureGen coal power plant one month after winning the project. I thought something was peculiar when I listened to President George W. Bush’s last State of the Union speech Monday night. He mentioned the need “to build a future of energy security” and pioneering “a new generation of clean energy technology,” but he didn’t name FutureGen, an international project touted to do just that.

Mattoon was selected by the energy industry group, FutureGen Alliance, to host the $1.75 billion project capable of generating energy with much less pollution. It was to be an economic boon and an environmental breakthrough. The blow to Mattoon and the entire state came Tuesday after news of a meeting between the U.S. delegation of Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Tim Johnson and U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, according to published reports.

Durbin said in a statement that the feds’ move was unmatched in “cruel deception.”

“After our meeting today it is clear that Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman has misled the people of Illinois, creating false hope in a FutureGen project which he has no intention of funding or supporting.”

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a statement that the state will not give up the fight to make FutureGen a reality in Illinois.

Even if Illinois were to fight and win a scaled-down version of FutureGen or another kind of clean coal technology project, it likely would cost a lot more than the original estimate. FutureGen Alliance’s Michael Mudd gave an online interview about the unknown reason the U.S. Department of Energy had yet to issue a decision by mid-January. But he also said the more delay, the higher the cost — as much as $10 million a month — because of inflation.

Editor’s note: The upcoming February issue of Illinois Issues has an article about FutureGen that was printed before it could be updated with today’s news. Watch the blog and our March issue for more updates.

Utility debate returns
Get ready for another round of energy debates involving natural gas and electricity rates for Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois customers. A group of consumer advocates gathered Tuesday to say consumers have a voice and should get involved in the rate-setting debates before the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Ameren proposes collecting about $245 million from customers of all three subsidiaries to deliver natural gas and electricity. The utility also proposes something called “decoupling,” which would allow it to add a surcharge on natural gas delivery rates to make up for a decline in the average amount of therms used by customers. For instance, Beth Bosch of the Illinois Commerce Commission gave this example: If Illinois has a warm winter and Ameren Illinois customers use less heat, then the utility would lose money. There is a cost to deliver the natural gas no matter how much or little customers use, says Leigh Morris, Ameren Illinois spokesman. He adds the amount of the surcharge would be minimal. The proposal also could benefit customers in the opposite scenario: If Illinois had a colder than normal winter and the utility made more money, then customers could get a credit on their bills.

The Illinois attorney general opposes that billing scheme. Janice Dale, chief of the public utilities bureau in the AG’s office, says it’s “a plan to have customers pay for natural gas service that they won’t use.”

Dale joined AARP at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday. Along with the Citizens Utility Board, they want to organize opposition to proposed rate increases and ask customers to attend public hearings before the Illinois Commerce Commission accepts some, all or none of the rate increases. Any rate changes wouldn’t be effective until at least this fall, according to Bosch.

Morris says Ameren Illinois asks customers to participate with an open mind about the company’s proposal, considering those rates apply only to the cost of delivering the power, amounting to about 25 percent of customers’ bills. Last year’s political turmoil contributed to the company’s poor credit rating, which makes it more expensive to borrow money when other costs — equipment, operations, fuel — are increasing. The company also plans to spend $900 million on infrastructure through 2010. “A rate increase is essential to our ability to meet our mission,” he says.

Public hearings are scheduled for 7 p.m. throughout Ameren’s service area:
- February 4 at the Decatur Public Library
- February 6 at Marion’s Williamson County Pavilion
- February 13 at the Belleville City Council chambers
- February 19 at Peoria City Hall
- February 26 at the Quincy City Council chambers
- February 28 at the Champaign City Council chambers.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Update on Blagojevich's health care lawsuit

Don’t expect to find out whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s health care expansion plans are ruled unconstitutional until at least next month. After a hearing in Chicago Friday, each party in the lawsuit needs to spell out its arguments in briefs for the judge to review. A status hearing isn’t scheduled until February 19, which happens to be the day before the governor’s annual and much-anticipated — or dreaded, depending on who you are — budget address. That’s when he maps out his agenda for the year.

Background: Attorney Richard Caro of Riverside sued the administration alleging the governor’s actions to expand state-sponsored health care were unconstitutional because he would have extended coverage to 147,000 more people for $42 million in the first year — all without legislative approval. The lawsuit includes similar allegations by the Illinois Coalition for Jobs, Growth, and Prosperity, represented by businessman Ron Gidwitz, a Republican who ran for governor, and Greg Baise, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association.

History: The governor first couldn’t get his health care plans through the Illinois General Assembly last year, mostly because he proposed paying for it with a huge tax on businesses. Then he tried to use his executive authority and advance the plan through the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, made up of six Democrats and six Republicans. That didn’t work, either. The committee rejected the emergency plan in November.

Future: Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care that’s supporting the governor’s efforts, said he hopes the court case doesn’t have a chilling effect on lawmakers who actually want to expand health care. He advises against using the lawsuit as a diversion to the evidence that a majority of Illinois voters are concerned about health care and want guaranteed affordable health care for all. See a summary of the statewide survey here.

Watch for more about the health care lawsuit against the governor in the next edition of Illinois Issues magazine, due out in early February.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The harsh truth

By Patrick O’Brien
The first round of students affected by the state’s Truth-in-Tuition law could have sticker shock when they open their bills this fall. Students at state schools with a locked-in tuition in the past are now vulnerable to a fluctuating economy because the state law does not guarantee a set tuition beyond four years unless a student’s academic program is designed for five or six years.

This spring marks the end of the first four-year group of students’ guarantee on tuition. Students returning for a fifth year of school will experience tuition hikes in the works at some state schools, and the first group of Truth-in-Tuition students can expect hefty increases as they try to finish their degrees.

The state budget picture hasn’t been rosy for higher education in the past few years. As state schools tighten their belts, they are forced to pass costs onto students.

Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, for example, first enrolled undergraduate students at $124 a credit hour in fall 2004, but it will propose that those students receive a 25 percent tuition increase starting in fall 2008 to $155 a credit hour. While this is only a proposal, the standard procedure in adopting tuition increases indicates this probably will be the size of the hike.

One reason the school is proposing such a large increase, seven times the rate of inflation, is because the first class of students were guaranteed stable tuition rates that were too low, according to Mark Wilcockson, the university’s vice president of finance and administration. Even with that 25 percent increase, this group of students at the school will pay the least in tuition at the university.

Wilcockson added that the Truth-in-Tuition law made it difficult to project costs four years ago, especially with the state’s economic picture playing such a large role in tuition increases. State aid to schools has decreased steadily since 2002, so students will feel the pinch this fall when state aid is unlikely to increase much and may actually decline.

While the Truth-in-Tuition law does take into account the rising costs of education, it does not take into account the increasing amount of time it takes to earn a degree. Students who have not finished their degrees in four years often complain about the limited availability of courses they need to finish their degree, according to Wilcockson.

Nationally, one in four students completes a degree in four years, according to Eastern Illinois University. The school has instituted a program, EIU4, which guarantees qualified students a four-year degree if they meet certain benchmarks.

As state universities continue to feel the budget crunch, however, the ability to increase course offerings — a key component in reducing the time it takes to graduate — is seriously hampered, according to Wilcockson.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"We are so done," for now

Those were the words of Rep. Julie Hamos, the Evanston Democrat in charge of months of mass transit negotiations. Mass transit riders and workers in northeastern Illinois are saved from major service cuts and layoffs, and Illinois seniors will start to get free rides on public buses and commuter rail lines within their districts by March.

That's the rosy picture from Springfield Thursday after the Illinois General Assembly approved a mass transit deal and a last-minute idea by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to grant free rides to seniors. But some lawmakers had to hold their noses to support the governor's program. Here's why:

Last minute: The governor's move to create a new “free rides” program for seniors came in the 11th hour. If he would have offered the same deal months earlier, then last summer's drama of threatened layoffs and service cuts could have been avoided. And the mass transit issue might not have distracted lawmakers from other important pieces of legislation. Several lawmakers of both political parties bashed the governor's last-minute actions as a political ploy to benefit his possible re-election campaign. The governor, however, didn't mind the wait. “All's well that ends well,” he said at a Statehouse news conference Thursday evening. “This was a process that took nine months for the General Assembly to finally pass something that I could act on. The wait was well worth it.”

Confusion: Seniors will get free rides but only in the districts in which they live. They might not understand that seniors who live in central Illinois won't be able to get a free ride on the Chicago commuter trains.

Limitless income eligibility: There is no income limit for seniors. They only have to be 65 or older. The House tried and approved a measure to include income limits, but it never got called in the Senate.

Seniors only, for now: The free rides program does not apply to other low-income riders. The House also tried to change that to allow free rides for people with disabilities, but again, that plan never got called in the Senate. Hamos said it's sensible to include people with disabilities in the free rides program, but she fears a slippery slope. “I really am seriously worried that this program will balloon out of sight over the next few years. We don't like to say 'no' to hardly anyone.”

Cost: Estimates already have increased from $15 million to $30 million a year, with about $1 million for downstate transit systems. Ron Huberman, president of the Chicago Transit Authority, issued caution: “We can't pretend that it comes at no cost. We need to understand it. We need to have an intellectual debate about the public policy, understanding full well what the costs are going to be.”

No guaranteed follow-up: There's no guarantee the Senate will pursue a follow-up measure to enact income limits or free rides for people with disabilities. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said he would not rush to judgment on the House Democrats' proposal and that there's still time to tweak the free-ride program.

Sales tax increase: The regional sales tax increase does apply to food and drugs in the area under the Regional Transportation Authority. Hamos said that's an unintended consequence. The state sales tax exempts food and drugs, but the portion of the sales tax for municipalities and the RTA still do apply to food and drugs. Tax reform could fix that.

There's still no capital deal: Downstate lawmakers for months tried to use political leverage, saying they wouldn't support a Chicago-area mass transit deal until they got a statewide plan for construction projects. They lost that leverage last week when enough lawmakers approved the mass transit deal, but that doesn't change the increasing capital needs across the state. Regional Transportation Authority executive director Steve Schlickman said: “We have to rebuild the infrastructure of our system. If we don't do that, some of these dollars we're getting for operating are going to be wasted.”

Good news: Downstate transit systems will get more operating assistance from the state as a part of this deal. A 10 percent jump from 55 percent to 65 percent could offset some of the lost revenue. The increased state aid also has potential to allow some rural transit districts to expand to areas that have, up to this point, lacked any public transportation, said Bill Jung, who runs Rides Mass Transit in the southern tip of Illinois. Read more about the downstate transit needs in our November feature.

Long-term outlook: While mass transit is saved from financial peril for a while, a few lawmakers argued that the lawmaking process is broken. Actually, Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat, called it a three-ring circus. In the other chamber, Rep. John Fritchey, another Chicago Democrat, filed a constitutional amendment to take away the governor's power to change only part of a measure. The amendatory veto is intended to smooth out the legislative process by allowing the governor to make minor changes to improve the legislation. Fritchey said Blagojevich has abused that power and significantly altered measures to fit his own agenda.

On a lighter note: The highlight of the debate, at least for chocolate lovers, was Rep. Jack Frank's comparison of the governor to a 3-year-old dripping in chocolate and running through a clothing store, touching all the linens and leaving a mess for everyone else to clean up. Franks is a Woodstock Democrat who often has harsh words for the governor.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Let's hope it's not a lemon

By Patrick O’Brien and Bethany Jaeger
I mistakenly labeled Democratic Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi as a Republican. My apologies. Sen. Wilhelmi is a Joliet Democrat.

The House and Senate finally agreed on major legislation for the first time since the electric rate debate. They approved a mass transit deal Thursday, but the hitch is that Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he’d make a change that would allow all seniors in the state to ride public transportation, including trains, for free. “I’m going to turn what I believe is a lemon into lemonade. I’m going to sweeten the bill,” he said at a Statehouse press conference.

The “sweetness” of the deal would cost almost $20 million statewide in fares that seniors would have paid in reduced rates. The change also means lawmakers will have to come back next week to either accept the governors changes or reject them with a super majority of votes, which would be difficult given that they’re short by a handful of votes in each chamber and that it’s a few short weeks before the primary elections.

House Democrat Julie Hamos stressed caution about declaring victory too early. “This is not over yet. It’s incumbent on us to bring back to Springfield 60 supportive voters in the House and 30 supportive voters in the Senate."

Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Jim Reilly said the job was only half done because the transit systems of northern Illinois needs upwards of $10 billion in infrastructure improvements. That requires a statewide capital bill.

Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman said the deal could close a “difficult chapter” in the CTA history, especially when his employees received layoff notices three times last year. But he said his agency must “keep the wheels in motion” for January 20 service cuts until a “signed, executable bill” is delivered by state government. The CTA’s doomsday scenario involves more than 2,400 job cuts and eliminating half of all bus lines.

After months of wrangling, the General Assembly delivered a bill to the governor in a matter of hours. A last-minute change of heart by Democratic Sen. James Clayborne of Belleville allowed the bill to pass with no margin to spare in the Senate. The bill passed by two votes in the House.

Clayborne, who voted present for the bill last night, explained his switch: “I had to deal with reality. I want a capital bill. I think everybody in the Senate wants one. But until Madigan sits at the table and decides that we’re all going to negotiate in good faith like we did with medical malpractice, like we did with Ameren, then why should we jeopardize services in Chicago?”

He added that downstate transit riders also benefit from this version because the state aid for mass transit districts increases from 55 percent of operating costs to 65 percent. See our November feature, Token support. The increase means a lot for those districts.

The measure, HB 656, uses a small sales tax increase in Chicago and the surrounding counties, one-quarter of one percent, to fund the following:

- $100 million for paratransit services for people with disabilities

- A 10 percent increase in state aid for downstate transit districts

- $20 million for PACE bus services in the Chicago suburbs

- $100 million a year if the Chicago City Council enacts a real estate transfer tax. The revenue would help fund pension and health care costs of CTA retirees.

- The counties surrounding Chicago also would have the option of using their funds from the sales tax increase for public safety purposes

Republicans are still relevant
by Bethany Jaeger
The approval of a mass transit plan has political ramifications for House and Senate Republicans. All along they’ve fought for a statewide capital bill to fix roads, bridges and schools in their districts. They tried to gain leverage by saying they wouldn’t vote for a mass transit plan without the promise of a capital bill.

“There’s no question there’s a leverage issue that’s gone,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross after his chamber approved the measure Thursday. “But there’s still a need there from a policy standpoint to do this bill that spans the whole state. So I hope people recognize that.”

Republicans also have lost their seat at the negotiating table that they enjoyed for the past seven months of overtime session. Democrats still have a majority in each chamber, but the new calendar year means the House and Senate technically don’t need Republican votes to approve legislation. The House has 67 Democrats but only needs 60 votes; the Senate has 37 Democrats but only needs 30 votes.

Republicans fear the politically difficult, clunky legislation for a gaming expansion coming any time soon is “as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series,” as Sen. Kirk Dillard said during Senate floor debate. Dillard lives in Hinsdale and said DuPage County has dire transportation needs that are met by the approved mass transit deal. He and Sen. Dan Cronin of Elmhurst broke with their GOP Caucus to vote in support of mass transit despite lacking a capital bill.

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson said he’s disappointed but that he would never tell his fellow lawmakers that they shouldn’t vote with their districts. But now they're back to square one on capital. “I think we’ve lost an opportunity to make sure that capital, infrastructure would be a part of any solution here," Watson said. "I think we’ve taken a step backwards"

Republicans are still needed, however, for major spending and borrowing plans that require three-fifths majority. Capital for infrastructure projects is the biggest example. So are other budget-related items and overrides of the governor’s vetoes.

Republicans also may be needed as a buffer between the dueling Democrats. Cross already took the role as peacemaker last year. He and Watson partook in “shuttle diplomacy” between legislative offices because House Speaker Michael Madigan declined to join a series of leaders’ meetings that included the governor.

Watson said that practice has to end. “Everyone has to be in the room. Everyone has to check their egos at the door. Everyone has to understand this is an important issue for the state as an entirety, not just a region.”

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mass transit stalls on the tracks

by Bethany Jaeger and Patrick O'Brien
It felt more like the end of a legislative session than it did the first day of a new spring session. A full day and night of action still leaves mass transit riders across the state not knowing whether their services will continue at full speed, or in some cases, at all. The Illinois House approved a plan that would raise the regional sales tax to avert severe service cuts in Chicago and the suburbs, but a similar measure lost in the Senate by a single vote. They’ll have to reconvene Thursday and try again. But neither version is a bill the governor would sign as is.

Chicago-area transit agencies warn of a doomsday scenario of massive layoffs, service cuts of more than half of all bus lines and fare increases if the legislature doesn’t approve a major funding mechanism by January 20. Otherwise, the agency would have a $400 million budget deficit.

The measure approved by the House, SB 572, would rebuild the agencies’ financial situation by increasing a regional sales tax. Such supporters as Chicago-area Democrats say it’s a local solution for a local problem, but some suburban lawmakers who oppose the idea say the counties around Chicago already are overtaxed.

The House version also would garner more money by allowing the Chicago City Council to levy a real estate transfer tax that buyers or sellers would have to pay. And it makes internal changes about the governance of the agencies and reforms the system’s pension and health care benefits, whose costs are threatening the agencies’ ability to operate.

Fixing those problems is “a serious investment in the future of this region,” said Rep. Julie Hamos, the Evanston Democrat who spearheaded the effort. “It is an economic development engine. It is what makes this region work.”

It took a ton of work to come to this compromise. The measure failed twice last year and went through 14 changes after months of negotiations. “I’m proud of it,” Hamos said on the House floor. “We worked it out in a bipartisan, open, collaborative process.”

But there’s still a long way to go. Even if the House and Senate agree on the same way to help mass transit, Gov. Rod Blagojevich repeatedly vows not to raise general state taxes. His spokeswoman, Rebecca Rausch, said late Wednesday night that if a regional sales tax plan lands on the governor’s desk, he will “have ideas about how to improve it.” That means the measure would have to go through another round of votes in each chamber, taking more time and leaving room for more complications. And the more time lawmakers spend in Springfield, the less time they have to campaign back in their districts before the February 5 primary election.

Complicating the matter in the Senate is that downstate lawmakers still won't support a Chicago-area transit plan while the entire state suffers from dilapidated roads and bridges and overcrowded schools. They fear a capital bill that would fix those problems is falling by the wayside. Rep. Sidney Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican, said the Chicago transit agencies “won’t be able to use their trains and buses without wheels” if a capital bill doesn’t come to fruition.

As pointed out by Jim Reilly, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, the pressure is on to act on mass transit in the next few weeks. “I think that the deadline of [January] 20th coupled with the fact that there’s a primary on February 5, something will happen.” Chicago-area lawmakers will have a heck of a time trying to woo constituents affected by mass transit cuts if the legislature fails to address the funding problem before then.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Transit on the move

By Patrick O’Brien and Bethany Jaeger
Editor’s note: Welcome Patrick O’Brien, our new Public Affairs Reporting intern from the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he’s earning his master’s. He’s from Chicago and is the former editor of the Independent at Northeastern Illinois University.

Before hearing a word of testimony at the Illinois House Gaming Committee today, Chairman Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, issued a warning that signaled action on gambling expansion in Illinois was far from imminent. Instead, the committee set the stage for a showdown about mass transportation funding over the next two to three days. Lawmakers will start the new legislative session Wednesday with trying to prevent a doomsday scenario for Chicago’s transit system.

Rep. Bob Molaro, a Chicago Democrat and point person on gaming issues, said gaming was being put on the back burner to find a solution for the transit funding crisis. “I’m hoping we do mass transit the next two days. I was never one to say let’s hold mass transit hostage for capital.”

He’s talking about a group of downstate lawmakers who previously vowed not to vote for a Chicago-area mass transit deal until the legislature also advanced a major capital program that would fund new construction of roads, bridges and schools. But with the flip of the calendar to a new spring session, it’s going to be easier to approve legislation than it was in the past seven months of overtime session. Fewer votes are needed now.

But needing fewer votes hardly tames the challenges confronting the General Assembly. Trust or lack thereof is the biggest hurdle to agreeing on ways to collect taxpayer money to pay for such large spending programs.

Molaro, co-sponsor of the gaming legislation, said the biggest obstacle to approving a gaming deal, for instance, is divvying up casino revenues.

“The good news about a gaming bill, it raises about $1.2 billion extra money every year — but that’s the bad news about the bill, the fight’s going to be over how to spend it,” he said.

The measure seeks to empower a revamped Illinois Gaming Board to exercise strict scrutiny over a potential Chicago casino, which would help fund a statewide capital program.

Lang’s message made clear that while the gaming expansion is key to funding a capital program, an agreed upon proposal won’t be ready to go for weeks. Lang told the audience of lobbyists and activists that if they testified before this meeting of the committee, they wouldn’t able to testify at future meetings on the primary gambling proposal in the House, HB 4194.

Friday, January 04, 2008

State representative will serve in Iraq

In two to three weeks, Rep. Jim Watson, a Jacksonville Republican, will put his legislative duties on hold to serve in Iraq. He’ll deploy about eight months after he re-enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves out of a sense of duty.

He previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves from 1985 to 1991, including one year overseas during Operation Desert Storm.

This time, he says he expects a lot more interaction with the Iraqi civilians. As a staff sergeant with the Marine’s 3rd Civil Affairs Group based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he expects to help build the local governance and infrastructure. That will require recognizing and working within the differences of the Iraqi culture. “You have a system where you have a tribal culture, where shame and honor are very important. They have different ways, different rules, different customs to deal with that,” he says.

The goal is to create a stable, democratic system that’s unique and specific to Iraq. “I hope I am successful in helping to build a level of stability in their governance — because that’s how we win, that’s how we get out of there, that’s what will keep my kids from having to go back or anybody else’s kids.”

Serving in the Illinois House since 2001, he says he re-enlisted out a sense of duty to his fellow soldiers. He explains by citing former President John F. Kennedy: One man can make a difference, and every many should try. “This is a case where I know I’ve got some skills that can help in that conflict. We win over there by helping them establish a stable infrastructure, stable government, stable rule of law. And you can’t let the same people carry the water over and over again. So, I step up.”

While deployed for the expected 270 days, Watson’s constituent services will be shared by fellow lawmakers Sen. Deanna Demuzio, a Carlinville Democrat, and Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat. Watson plans to return to the legislature to carry out his two-year term.

The yo-yo BIMP

Illinois school districts have waited 60 days for the governor’s action on one particular measure because it would allow them to collect about $600 million for increased state aid payments per student and increased reimbursements for special education teachers. Gov. Rod Blagojevich left time to spare, about 14 hours, to act before the bill would have automatically become law without his signature.

It’s not for the taking yet, though. The governor made two changes from the version approved by the legislature in August. Blagojevich’s office issued a press release at 10 a.m. that said he changed some technical details relating to money for special education and for the Illinois State Police. “Schools and the State Police wouldn’t have been able to get the full funds that are designated for them in the budget without these two changes,” says Abby Ottenhoff, the governor’s spokeswoman. She adds that it took so long to announce the changes because of a thorough review process of such a large piece of legislation, which she says would have had unintended consequences with these mistakes. She denies any political motivations to use the measure as leverage for other items on the negotiating table, namely mass transit funding, gaming-for-capital or money for member initiatives.

In order for the school districts to get the money, the Illinois House and Senate must agree on whether to accept or reject the changes. If they disagree, then the entire measure dies. (Technical note: The new year means it’ll take only 30 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in the House to approve the governor’s changes; it’ll take a three-fifths majority in each chamber to override those changes.)

Considering the long-standing sour relationship between the governor and House Speaker Michael Madigan, as well as the lack of unison between the speaker and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., school districts have gotten used to not seeing the money that the legislature approved as part of the normal state budget.

The governor’s changes will first be considered in the Senate. Jones’ spokeswoman Cindy Davidsmeyer says the president’s office is reviewing the changes and has no comment.

Either way, it’ll be up to the House to follow suit in order for the bill to take effect. Rep. Gary Hannig, Democratic budget negotiator in his chamber, says it’ll be up to the House Rules Committee, which determines whether bills are heard for debate or kept in purgatory. “If this is simply technical, I don’t think there’ll be a problem. I think we’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll run it through as quick as we can because we understand that this has gone on way too long,’” Hannig says. However, the committee could decide to hold the bill if it believes this governor’s or any governor’s amendatory veto oversteps authority by changing the intent of the original legislation. When that happens, the committee tends not to call the bill, Hannig says.

The first day the legislature could consider the so-called BIMP bill, which “implements” the budget, is January 9, the first day of the new spring schedule.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hustonville Republican and school superintendent, says the changes do correct errors made during the drafting process. He says his concern is that even if the House and Senate approve the same version of the measure, the schools still are at risk of not receiving all the money they were promised because of cash flow problems at the end of a budget year. A longstanding practice has been to balance the budget at year’s end by delaying bill payments. Considering warnings about outstanding bills and slowing revenue projections by such economic groups as the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, Eddy says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that school districts will get all 24 state aid payments expected throughout this school year.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Old problems carry over into New Year

With 18 days left for the state to avert service cuts of Chicago area mass transit, the Illinois General Assembly becomes a playground for power jabs. In the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t look like a mass transit plan will be seriously considered until next week. The outlook for final action, however, is even cloudier. The 2008 legislative session, unfortunately, is expected to be more of the same: Gridlocked. Unless one of those power jabs actually works.

By calling the 19th special session for January 2, Gov. Rod Blagojevich put political blame on the legislature for failing to approve a mass transit deal. Neither Democratic leader, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., attended Wednesday’s session. Both chambers recorded dismal attendance. By ignoring the governor’s special session, Madigan helps delay action on a mass transit plan. That could work to if the goal is to frame a House mass transit plan as the only viable solution before the January 20 deadline.

The deadline given by transportation authorities seems ominous, but as Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson puts it, they’ve cried wolf before. In the meantime, the debate to fix the funding and management problems is stale. A House committee spent two hours in Springfield Wednesday discussing three ideas, but only one idea stood out as having potential to gain enough support for approval. It’s the same plan sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos, SB 572, that’s guaranteed to be vetoed by the governor because it raises regional sales taxes.

Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat and floor leader, predicts that plan will still gain 60 votes necessary for House approval, thanks to the New Year. A new session wipes the slate clean and requires fewer votes than last year’s seven months of overtime. Here’s a recap of the ideas discussed:

1. SB 572: Would increase the sales tax in the Chicago region and allowing Chicago to increase the real estate transfer tax. Challenge: The governor refuses to sign legislation that would raise state taxes.
2. SB 307: Would divert $385 million from the state’s portion of the sales tax on gasoline. Challenge: No agreed way to plug the hole in the state’s main checkbook. Ways discussed to plug the hole: Ending corporate tax breaks, but that’s been tried and has failed before; transfer money from dedicated state funds, which routinely is done but sparks controversy over funds for such sensitive issues as mental health, the environment and substance abuse.
3. HB 556: Would increase the sales tax on cigarettes by 90 cents a pack and allow five counties surrounding Chicago to add an additional $1. Challenge: It would be less reliable than other taxes, particularly as the state enacts a statewide smoking ban that’s expected to decrease the number of smokers in Illinois. The cigarette tax also was originally designed to generate money that would help the state pay down Medicaid bills and better fund public employee pension systems, according to Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who opposes the new measure that would change the tobacco revenue for mass transit.

Hamos says a mass transit plan could float next week, whether it’s an old idea, a new idea or a combination of both. Either way, fares are expected to increase for mass transit riders in 2008.

Even if the House approved any version of a mass transit plan, the deal appears to be a no-go in the Senate because downstate lawmakers still are committed to demanding a statewide capital bill before they approve a Chicago area mass transit plan. And the House speaker repeatedly says he doesn’t want to link mass transit to a capital plan that relies on gaming revenue. (A gaming deal, by the way, is nowhere in sight other than a House committee scheduled early next week.) Mautino mentions one potential leverage point: If the House approves any mass transit plan before the January 20 deadline, then the Senate is left with the blame if nothing happens to avert service cuts.

Side note
The governor issued a statement after a Chicago press conference Wednesday morning that said now that the calendar flipped to January, it’s easier for the legislature to approve measures because they need fewer votes than needed during the seven months of overtime session last year. Because Democrats have majorities in both chambers, the new calendar year means the majorities have potential to approve measures without Republican votes. Not needing Republican votes would be significant in most legislative years, but not this one. The past eight months have demonstrated that the Democrats often disagree and can’t bank on each other. They actually infuriate one another. It’s true that Republicans have withheld votes and became influential in last year’s overtime negotiations, but the failure to pass such major legislation as a Chicago mass transit deal, a major construction plan or a massive gaming expansion have less to do with Republican obstruction and more to do with Democratic ineptitude.