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.”

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