Monday, August 11, 2008

Ready, set, repeat

Reminiscent of last year, a whole host of state policy issues remain up in the air throughout the summer. Inaction mostly rests on the shoulders of Democrats, who are repeating history by agreeing on practically nothing. The main culprits are Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, each of whom blames the other for lack of action. Meanwhile, Illinois is in its ninth year without a capital construction plan, campaign funding reform remains dormant, many state services and agencies are operating with stagnant or decreased funding and long-term costs of health care and pensions continue to compound.

Legislators and the governor will return to Springfield this week with lots to talk about, but little progress is anticipated. Here’s a chronological list of activities with some context.

Today: Comptroller Dan Hynes issued a statement that he would not cut the checks for pay raises for state legislators and officers if they are enacted because the General Assembly never gave him authority to spend the necessary money. “We cannot implement the pay raises without an appropriation. But more importantly, I am of the opinion that this is no time for pay raises,” he said in a release, citing budget cuts for social services and Medicaid providers. The House rejected the pay raises, but the Senate has yet to do so. In the larger scheme of things, the pay raises simply are a battle of public perception. While such state services as substance abuse treatment struggle to meet demand because of $43 million in budget cuts, it would look disingenuous if legislators received their annual 3 percent cost-of-living adjustments at the same time they receive significant pay raises, costing about $1.1 million just for constitutional officers, legislators and top state agency officials, according to the comptroller’s office. That doesn't count pay raises for judges.

Tuesday: Expect Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s idea to move about 140 state employee positions from Springfield three hours south to be rejected by a bipartisan legislative review panel. Expect that rejection to be followed by the governor’s statement that the move is going to go forward, anyway. Lots of union-backed employees will be up in arms again. Meanwhile, they’re still working under last year’s contract with the state while their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, remains gridlocked (click this link and scroll down) with the administration. Among the key sticking points are employee wages and employee contributions to health care and pension benefits.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Gov. Rod Blagojevich called legislators back to the Capitol to address two major issues: funding for education on Tuesday and funding for capital construction projects Wednesday. But neither session meets until late in the afternoon, giving legislators time throughout the day to attend various events at the annual State Fair in Springfield. Governor’s Day (a.k.a. Democrats’ Day) is Wednesday and Republican Day is Thursday. Watch for political fireworks off stage.

Ongoing: The governor says he’ll “rewrite to do right,” his slogan for changing agreed-upon bills to include his agenda. If the General Assembly rejects his changes, then the underlying bill dies. So far, he’s changed two bills. One would allow all adults up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans. The original intent was limited to college students who took a medical leave or who reduced their course loads to part time because of an illness or injury. They would have been covered for a year on their parents' plans. A second amendatory veto would extend property tax exemptions to all veterans with service-connected disabilities certified by the U. S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The original bill regarded a tax increment financing district in the Village of Downs. Blagojevich has said he will continue amending numerous bills in his Rewrite to Do Right campaign, “to take positive action on legislation that has been sent to him by the General Assembly,” according to a statement from Brian Williamsen, his spokesman.

August 29: Later this month marks the deadline for the governor to sign, change or reject ethics reforms sent to his desk in June. His office repeatedly has said he doesn’t think the ethics reforms go far enough. One potential amendment could include banning state contractors from donating to statewide political parties. The original legislation, which received unanimous approval by the General Assembly in May, only prevented state contractors holding contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to statewide officeholders who sign the contracts.

Also coming up: One of the House Democrats’ point people on education, Rep. Mike Smith of Canton, announced that he’ll host a series of public hearings to consider a proposal to abolish property taxes for school funding by 2010. It’s been floated by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat who previously threatened to run against Blagojevich for governor in the absence of education funding reforms. Meeks didn’t run, but he also didn’t get what he wanted. So here we go again. Add education funding reform to a huge pile of politically sensitive Statehouse issues that likely will grab some headlines but will remain stalled, at least before the November elections.

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