Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hastert, Con-Con and prison

A powerful lobbyist
By Patrick O’Brien
The task of getting a capital bill passed in Illinois just got a powerful new ally Wednesday. Gov. Rod Blagojevich enlisted former speaker of the U.S. House Dennis Hastert, a Republican, to co-chair a bipartisan group to help pass the governor’s Illinois Works program.

The other co-chair is Southern Illinois University President and former gubernatorial Democratic candidate Glenn Poshard. Poshard and Hastert provide a geographical and political balance to the group, which includes a diverse group of union leaders and several presidents of chambers of commerce.

The strange political bedfellows on the committee highlight the breadth of support for a statewide plan that would fix crumbling bridges, schools and other infrastructure and presumably stabilize a troubled state economy.

The governor’s plan would lease a portion of the Illinois Lottery to fund 65 percent of the $25 billion program, while the other 35 percent would come from bond sales. The reliance on lottery funds has some worried the plan will fail, just as previous attempts to use gambling expansion to fund a capital bill also stalled.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he’s concerned about the partial lottery sale as a funding source, saying House Republicans are open to other ideas for financing the program. “No one is going to be open to an idea that takes away $700 million from a budget that’s there for general revenue and education. A [budget] hole like that makes it hard to consider.”

Cross also said gambling expansion is a possible funding idea for an infrastructure plan. He recently asked House Speaker Michael Madigan for a meeting of the full chamber to discuss the idea.

Hastert was in Springfield today to be honored with a resolution by the House for his six years of service in the state legislature and eight years as U.S. speaker, the longest term for a Republican in the post.

Con-Con considerations
By Bethany Jaeger
A few blocks north of the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and former state comptroller and lawmaker Dawn Clark Netsch debated whether Illinois voters should call for a constitutional convention, which would allow delegates to rewrite the state charter. The question will be on the November 2008 ballot because, by law, the question has to be posed to voters every 20 years. The last convention was in 1969-1970. (See background in our November and December Illinois Issues magazine.)

Netsch warns against another Con-Con right now for two primary reasons (among others):
  1. Leadership, or lack thereof: "We don’t have constitutional crisis in the state of Illinois. We have a leadership crisis,” she said, adding: "There are no constitutional barriers to resolving the issues that have been plaguing us for the last couple of years. The only thing that is missing is the kind of leadership that brings those issues finally to bear.”
  2. Preparation, or lack thereof: The state has done nothing other than approve a non-binding resolution to prepare and educate voters for the decision (see our June 2007 blog for more). She described a two-year effort by a 50-member committee in preparation for the ballot question in 1988. Nine public hearings across the state and a series of research papers all contributed to discussion beforehand. There's nothing like that this year so far.
Quinn supports the call for a Con-Con to address what he considers inadequate and unfair systems for school funding, a flat state income tax rate and government ethics. “The whole idea of a constitutional convention is to make the voters stronger.”

He said one of the provisions that would do just that would be to allow voters to recall elected public officials. Netsch agreed that the only way a recall provision would be added to the state Constitution is through a convention, considering lawmakers are unlikely to approve a measure by themselves.

Ironically Quinn helped draft recall legislation, which happened to received unanimous approval from a House committee later that afternoon. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, it would amend the state Constitution to allow a recall similar to California’s provision. See a 2006 analysis of recall provisions in other states from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We wrote about Franks' measure last November. He said it sets a high threshold to avoid rash, politically charged removal attempts. Even if the state Constitution were amended to include a recall provision, he said they would be rare.

Prison closing timeline
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration proposed closing Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet as a way to save money. (See the Associated Press story here.) Closing a Vandalia prison sparked a session-long revolt a few years ago, and the prison stayed open. This one is bound to be controversial, too, given that the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents the 400 jobs that would be transferred to other prisons.

The Illinois Department of Corrections announced the Stateville plans at a Senate committee hearing last week, but the Illinois legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability could slow those plans per state law. (Lee Enterprises’ reporter Kurt Erickson wrote about it here.)

In a meeting Wednesday, the commission’s executive director, Dan Long, said he sent a letter to the corrections department spelling out the timeline for public hearings and a recommendation for how to proceed with closing of the prison under the state facilities’ closure act. The department said it doesn’t think the act applies because it would only close a portion, not all, of the prison. The bottom line is that if the act does apply to the partial closing of Stateville, then the clock started at the February 28 Senate committee. Public hearings would have to be held between April and June, and the commission would have to offer a non-binding recommendation to the department by the end of June.

Long said this is uncharted territory. If state lawmakers continue to disagree with the department over whether the Stateville idea falls under the state facilities’ closure act, Long said, “I’d venture to guess it’d be another lawsuit.”

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