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.

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