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.

No comments: