Thursday, February 14, 2008

Stormy start to session

A week before Gov. Rod Blagojevich's annual budget address, the state's economy already casts a cloud over the Statehouse.

Amid national news that a full-blown recession is looming, President George W. Bush signed an economic stimulus package. It's supposed to send checks in late spring and summer to singles who made less than $75,000 and couples who earned less than $150,000 in 2007. (People qualify by filing their federal income taxes.)

If the national economy tanks, Illinois won't be far behind. That's the message of a report requested by the state General Assembly's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The agency's January briefing says, “Illinois will most certainly succumb if the economy sinks into a recession - if it has not done so already.”

Moody's also said in a report for the commission that the odds of a recession increased from 40 percent to 60 percent last month.

Those reports couple with the Illinois comptroller's recent warning that state government is unprepared for a recession. His office released a report to the General Assembly. In his Statehouse office Wednesday, Comptroller Dan Hynes said, “The bottom line is that the state of Illinois, unlike many other states, has not taken advantage of our five years of economic growth. And now as we face a recession, our financial problems are daunting.”

He said the state accumulated “tremendous revenue growth” of $5.5 billion during the past five years. But lawmakers spent it on new programs rather than putting it toward compounding, long-term obligations. While the state devoted more money to pensions, Medicaid, health care, higher education and general education in that time, Hynes said it hasn't necessarily made a difference or addressed a structural deficit that the Blagojevich Administration often misrepresents.

“Each year, the governor has made his budget presentation and has declared that the deficit has been eliminated -- each and every year. And each and every year, that has been proven untrue when the final numbers come out. And that's a problem in and of itself, but it's especially problematic when the economy slows down," Hynes said. (For more information about whether the budget is balanced, see Charlie Wheeler's Illinois Issues column about the governor's 2006 budget address.)

Stormy Smoke Free Illinois debate
Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican and vocal GOP leader, blew his top in a House committee, later calling the chairwoman an “idiot” for not acting on her own and instead relying on behind-the-scenes staffers to tell her what to do.

Black threw a tantrum because the committee chair didn't call for his amendment to be attached to the Smoke Free Illinois Act, which went into effect January 1 but doesn't have all rules in place. Committee chairwoman Rep. Karen May of Highland Park said leadership told her that other amendments weren't ready and that they're expected to be called for debate next week.

This could happen a lot this session. New measures will have extra amendments that spell out the rules for implementing them. That's a direct shot at the governor, who publicly stated that the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules - which reviews such rules - doesn't matter. Blagojevich's office previously suggested the bipartisan legislative panel plays only an advisory role after the panel denied his rules for expanding health care to more low- and middle-income adults.

Black's measure, by the way, would change wording in the definition of private clubs. It would allow veterans' halls to vote on whether they want to allow smoking in their halls.

That's just one proposed exemption. A more sweeping measure sponsored by Rep. Harry Ramey, a Carol Stream Republican, would allow smoking in bars, bowling alleys, veterans' halls, strip clubs and casinos. In other words, restaurants would be one of the only mandated smoke-free facilities. Some Illinois veterans testified at the House committee. One urged lawmakers to retain the ban on smoking in all public places for the sake of public health. Another urged them to let veterans, many of whom started smoking while serving in World War II and Vietnam, smoke in their own halls.

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