Thursday, July 31, 2008

Out with a bang

Illinois is closing out July in style and gearing up for more politics in August. The same day Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled a “compromise” capital plan to fund road and school construction projects throughout the state, his office was sued along with Senate President Emil Jones Jr.’s office for not releasing budget-related details. And the governor’s idea to transfer nearly 150 positions from Springfield three hours south to Harrisburg is the subject of hours of testimony opposing the idea, although southern Illinois folks like the idea of an economic boost. (More on that in the next post.) And after all that in one day, the condition of state government is unlikely to change any time soon.

I write “compromise” in quotes because there’s no deal on the capital plan without all parties on board. Although the governor’s office made a gesture to compromise by getting rid of the revenue source that House Speaker Michael Madigan ruled out — expanded gaming — it’s clear that the governor’s revised proposal still lacks support from House Democrats. The new version reduces the spending amount from $34 billion to $25 billion. So, yes, the casino-less proposal satisfies three of four caucuses, but those three caucuses were on board in the first place.

House Democrats’ concerns about the first plan still stand. Most prominently, they still don’t trust the governor to fairly distribute the capital funds. House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat who represented the speaker in today’s meeting and in previous leaders’ meetings, reiterated Madigan’s stance: House Democrats won’t get on board unless the spending side of the capital plan is crystal clear. Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said specific line items are an “absolute requirement.” In an e-mail after the meeting, Currie echoed: “Assuming we could reach agreement on the revenue side — a big assumption — we would definitely want line-item allocations and some way to guarantee that dollars allocated are actually spent.”

Her kicker: “So I think we continue to be on a very steep uphill climb.”

The governor’s revised revenue ideas still lack consensus. House Democrats repeatedly have questioned the wisdom of the first revenue source: selling off all or part of the Illinois Lottery to the private sector. The state asset generates money for public education and has been estimated to be worth more than $10 billion, leading some to question why the state would sell it rather than revamp it and maximize its value. Proponents say the private sector could be more efficient and aggressive in managing the lottery’s potential.

Currie said, however, that privatization also could negate the original intent and appeal. “The lottery was originally sold as a way to help education, so buying a losing lottery ticket still helped the kids. Take away education, and people may feel they’ve been bamboozled.”

The governor’s proposal does include a “lockbox” for capital investments and lottery proceeds for education. And supporters of the lottery lease say the upfront cash and the ongoing state share of the profits would ensure that public schools would receive at least the same amount under the public-private partnership.

The other funding idea includes transferring higher-than-expected revenues from two state taxes, the motor fuel tax that goes into a dedicated Road Fund and the sales tax on gasoline that goes into the general revenue fund. Currie said her caucus could consider using “excess” revenues from the motor fuel tax (a.k.a. Road Fund) if the administration proves that the money would go directly to capital construction projects. Transferring excess revenues from the state sales tax on gasoline (a.k.a. general revenue fund) is a different story. “Diversions from GRF — which, essentially, is what taking gasoline sales taxes really is — could be a very tough sell,” Currie said. Without support from House Democrats, a capital plan is unlikely to advance.

Another lawsuit
Two nonprofit groups supporting limited government are suing Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones Jr. for denying access to budget-related documents.

The Illinois Chapter of Americans for Prosperity based in Chicago and Judicial Watch Inc. based in Washington, D.C., filed suit in Sangamon County. They allege that both offices repeatedly denied requests under the Freedom of Information Act to release information about how a lump sum of $1.7 billion was spent in fiscal year 2008. In a Statehouse news conference Thursday, the two groups justified their suit by citing newspaper reports about questionable grants doled out by individual legislators. They’re asking the court to require Blagojevich and Jones to release information about specific uses of the money.

They’re targeting so-called member initiatives that distribute state grants to local nonprofits or units of local government, and so on, and the grants aren’t subject to competitive bidding processes or to legislative debates. Projects often are lumped together in a single dollar amount and lack specific descriptions of how that money would be used.

Jones’ office says its attorneys are reviewing the suit and don’t have a comment. I’m still waiting for a response from the governor’s office.

Joe Calomino, director of the Illinois Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said the group did not sue House Democrats or Republicans because they released detailed information about money issued for member initiatives.

The group, which publishes an online blog called Pork Report, also is behind legislation that would create a Web site to track all money spent on all districts, all state contracts, all state employees and all tax credits to improve government transparency. It was intended to serve as a one-stop shop for taxpayers. The measure was unanimously approved by the House but stalled in the Senate.

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