Thursday, July 10, 2008

Speaker: Gaming is dead

House Speaker Michael Madigan deflated all momentum behind a capital bill this afternoon with one statement: “Given the conditions that exist here in Springfield, I think that the proposed expansion of gaming is a dead issue.” And the state’s operating budget remains unbalanced, as the House continues to reject ideas that would plug what the governor describes as a $2 billion hole. While the House is expected to vote next week to restore some of the governor’s $1.4 billion in cuts, they’re unlikely to support revenue ideas to pay for them.

Madigan spoke in a Statehouse news conference shortly after the full chamber rejected the Senate’s gaming proposal, which would have allowed a new land-based casino in Chicago, a state-owned casino and a new riverboat somewhere in the state. It also would have allowed slot machines at horse race tracks.

The multibillion dollar revenue source was the crux of a $34 billion capital construction plan. Without it, Illinois enters its ninth year without a major capital plan and without federal matching funds earmarked for transportation projects.

“This is another example of the speaker’s shenanigans to thwart the capital bill, which would put hundreds of thousands of people to work, and to impose an income tax on the people of Illinois next year,” the governor’s office wrote in an e-mail. The governor is not giving up on capital, said his spokesman Brian Williamsen in a phone conversation.

In a characteristically methodical way, the speaker led his caucus in rejecting most of the funding source of the capital plan. Yet Madigan added that he would not declare a capital plan dead, just gaming.

Without gaming, he said he’d consider previous revenue ideas, including one proposed by House Minority Leader Tom Cross last year that would offer a limited expansion of gaming at existing casinos or riverboats. The speaker also has his own version of a gaming plan that would reform the Illinois Gaming Board. And he cited a previous measure he supported: a constitutional amendment that would increase the Illinois income tax to fund education and construction needs.

Madigan denied, however, that he would propose an income tax increase after the November elections, as the governor and some Republicans repeatedly have charged. “I am not going to support an increase in the income tax during a lame duck session of the legislature,” Madigan said. He did not, however, rule out next spring. “Next spring is next spring. That’s a long time away.”

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson said it’s unfortunate the speaker took gaming off the table to fund capital. “Revenue has to be generated to fund a capital bill, and gaming seemed to be the best alternative.” He added that although he’s not happy about it, Madigan’s statement could have a positive side. “I think we’ve been strung along for a long period of time … If this is going to bring closure to at least the revenue source, then, I guess, so be it.”

Watson said his caucus would be willing to consider alternative revenue sources for a capital plan, and he charged the speaker with the responsibility to propose such alternatives.

Capital bill summary: All parties say they’re not going to give up on capital, but none seem to offer alternatives that would serve as a compromise. Gaming was thought to be the compromise between most of the parties, but the House didn’t like the Senate’s procedural method that prevented the House from being able to make any changes to the gaming plan. So the General Assembly went from having what looked like a compromise to what turned out to be another dramatized clash between two chambers, leaving us where we started.

The operating budget is just as anti-climactic at this point. To be clear, the state does have an operating budget in place with most of the $59 billion spending plan activated. Yet the governor’s $1.4 billion in cuts announced Wednesday still leave an unbalanced budget, according to the House and Senate GOP. According to the House speaker, “The word 'balanced' is one of these things that’s in the eye of the beholder.”

State Medicaid spending often is one area that can be delayed to balance the current year’s budget. Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, explained last night that regardless of the governor’s budget cuts that affect state Medicaid programs, the state still has to reimburse medical providers who care for Medicaid patients. “We still owe those bills. So the governor’s not cutting growth in government when he cuts Medicaid. He’s just pushing bills off into the future,” Righter said.

The rest of the governor’s spending cuts, particularly to human services, could be considered by the House next week. It’s scheduled to return Tuesday through Thursday. The Senate is not, meaning no cuts will be restored unless the Senate also agrees. That could be a while, considering Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said his chamber isn’t scheduled to come back to Springfield until the annual fall session in November. His spokeswoman said they would wait to see what the House did next week before deciding whether to override some of the governor’s vetoes before then.

But, there’s always the chance that the state budget could end up where it started, with relatively flat funding levels for most state services and some decreases for operations. “I could see nothing happening,” Cross said after the House rejected gaming.

The one option remaining on the table in the House is so-called fund sweeps. The Senate and the governor want to allow the governor to transfer about $530 million from dedicated funds to the state’s general fund. It’s been done for years under multiple administrations. Although fund sweeps appears to be the one common ground between all parties, Cross said it’s a) not enough and b) not guaranteed. “If you’re going to end up using fund sweeps, where does it go? Does it go back to pay bills? Does it go to [developmental disabilities]? Does it go to higher ed? To nursing? There’s not enough to take care of all these. So I don’t know. It’s possible at the end of the day nothing happens.”

Madigan said last night that his Democratic members want to define which funds could be swept and where the money would go. They also may want to reduce the amount transferred.

Sen. Donne Trotter, a budget negotiator for his chamber, said there’s actually about $1.9 billion available in the dedicated funds that otherwise is considered “surplus” at the end of each year. He said he’d be willing to consider changing the amount transferred, whether it’s more or less than $530 million. Madigan, however, said fund sweeps historically topped off at $300 million.

Either way, Trotter and many others agree that fund sweeps won’t solve the budget deficit, whether the state operates at $1 billion or $2 billion in the red.

Operating budget summary: There’s a lot of work to do. If the House overrides some of the governor’s budget cuts without approving ways to pay for them, the budget will tilt further out of balance. The level of funding for state services during the second half of the fiscal year could come down to how well the state economy performs and whether legislators agree on ways to plug remaining holes when they reconvene this fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The proposed Gaming Bill was a half assed measure that was cobbled together in an ill conceived way in a short period of time that was doomed to failure when the disinfectant of sunshine was allowed to illuminate it.

In such a measure you are never going to gain a complete consensus from all concerned parties, but when you consider that the existing gaming boats were against it, the horse tracks were against it, and the City of Chicago was against it, then just where did they ever think they were going to get the votes to pass it in the first place?

A quick review of the gaming industry operational results of the last 6-12 months is the best evidence anyone would need to understand and appreciate that this would be an unreliable funding source as well. Gaming gross revenue and tax revenue is down double digits in jursdictions across the country, and some number of the highly leveraged gaming operators may be defualting on some of their bonded debt in the not too distant future. If IL were to have made this the primary source of their binded debt for a capital program two years ago, and then had this occur, we would be headed toward defualt on those bonds, or looking at huge tax increases to maintain the debt service without default as well.

As for the state budget process, here is a novel idea. How about beginning with the "leaders meetings" and draft budget proposal exchanges starting oh, maybe some time in January, right after the gavel the session opened and the newbies have been sworn in. Why they keep jerking around with these 11th hour fire drills in the last week of May is far beyond comprehension to the average citizen and business person. This is simply no way to run a railroad.

Star early; get the pleasantries out of the way, and get down to the difficult decisions and the name calling right away, and don't wait until Memorial Day weekend to realize; "hey, we were supposed to have a finalized budget next week; weren't we?

This exercise in fultility is probably the best advertising that money can buy for a Constitutional Convention. The entrenched powers that be will continue to demogogue and fight it, and yet f it passes they will try to manipulate a pre-ordained outcome anyway, but one can only hope for some citizen unrest that could take some of the certainty from the outcome and add enough unpredictability so that perhaps the common citizen may actually get thrown some kind of a bone in the process in the end here anyway. Don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen however.