Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A lot has to happen in three days

The governor’s office called it significant, and it is significant when major state government officials stand together in favor of the first major construction plan in nine years. But it’s also significant that House Speaker Michael Madigan wasn’t there. And although everyone present said they agreed on the general proposals for financing a capital plan, they’re still negotiating fine details that would have significant effects on construction projects for roads, bridges and schools.

As usual this time in the legislative session (three days left to act on a state operating budget before the Constitutional deadline and before Republicans get a seat at the table), lots of things are in the air. For instance, the House stripped most of the Senate’s version of a state budget and will import its own revised plan. The Senate, meanwhile, stripped numerous House-approved measures because they would have required all rules for new laws to be approved by the General Assembly. The rules currently are reviewed and approved by a much smaller panel. By the Senate rejecting the rulemaking provision, those measures have to go back to the House.

Separate from the operating budget is the capital budget. Gov. Rod Blagojevich made it clear this afternoon he is not tying the two together. That’s good news for those waiting for an agreed operating budget because the proposed capital plan involves controversial revenue sources that could take awhile to win the support of enough legislators. It would require the state to lease the Illinois Lottery for an immediate influx of cash, expand gaming to include new casinos and slots at racetracks and divert money from the Road Fund and the state’s general fund. See more here.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the legislators who might hesitate to support those revenue ideas might be willing to consider given the dire need. “Let’s be clear. Not every member of our caucus is going to support this. And that’s the case in all four caucuses, but we have gone nine years without capital. So you’re seeing a willingness and an openness for members to look at ideas that maybe they wouldn’t have embraced eight years ago.”

The Senate GOP Caucus added that it’s concerned about the integrity of the plan for distributing the money, according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. He said he wants a “lockbox” provision to ensure money would go to the projects promised. And he wants remaining money, which he said was roughly $650 million, to go into a fund that would help offset the loss of revenue going to education — because if the state leased a portion of the lottery, which is supposed to help fund the state’s public education system, then the state would lose that constant stream of money). That’s still in negotiations, Watson said. “The bill is not final, but we hope that when we get it, we’ll have a comfort level that will enable us to support this. And I feel that it will.”

The governor says he’s not looking beyond May 31 and said it’s hopeful to get a capital plan and an operating budget done by then. Jones touched on an “Obama factor,” which means Illinois Democrats plan to campaign for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid before the Democratic National Convention in Colorado in late August. “We are currently working on the budget,” Jones said. “We are currently working on this capital plan. And we intend to be out of here because the next president of the United States will be looking for us in Denver.”

A Madigan spokesman wasn’t immediately available late this afternoon. I’ll add his comments as soon as I can.

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