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.

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