Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Similar concepts, new context

One week before Gov. Pat Quinn proposes his first state budget to the General Assembly, legislators and advocates of all stripes are revisiting a lot of issues they tried but failed to enact during the Blagojevich Administration. This time, there’s a new context:

  1. Legislators and Statehouse insiders trust Quinn more than they trusted Blagojevich.
  2. Senate President John Cullerton has a better working and personal relationship with House Speaker Michael Madigan than did former Senate President Emil Jones Jr.
  3. The economic and fiscal crises have sparked a new sense of urgency to find quick fixes at the same time they have inspired a willingness (however reluctant) to pursue more long-term reforms.
Whether the new context and new players actually will foster consensus and meaningful changes to revenue and spending, however, is yet to be seen. At this point in the spring session, it’s still all talk. Here are a few examples:

Gaming for capital
Republican leaders oppose increasing the state sales tax on gasoline to pay for a major construction program. Instead, they rekindled ideas to fund a capital program for schools, mass transit and infrastructure projects by expanding gaming. Their goal is to avoid raising any state taxes in a recession.

“Right now is absolutely not the time to be raising taxes on people who are struggling themselves,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.

She and House Minority Leader Tom Cross propose expanding gaming to generate $1 billion in new revenue, which would help finance a $25 billion capital program. (They propose bonding about $12 billion, tapping $11 billion in the dedicated Road Fund to pay for transportation projects and leveraging about $3.5 billion from federal and local matching funds.)

Their gaming ideas include recurring proposals to allow a Chicago casino, expand positions at existing gaming facilities and enter a public-private partnership so that private investors manage the Illinois Lottery while the state continues to own it. Newer ideas include allowing video poker, as proposed in HB 4329, which is sponsored by one of Madigan’s assistant majority leaders, Rep. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley. Republicans also mentioned allowing Lottery tickets to be sold online, a proposal previously advanced by Cullerton.

Madigan took gaming off the table last year, but his spokesman, Steve Brown, said this is a new year. However, he said gaming tends to be a regressive source of revenue that usually generates a bunch of hype before falling by the wayside.

Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne said gaming for capital is still on the table in his chamber.

Tax reforms for education and economy
Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, reintroduced a concept of increasing the state income tax rate and expanding the state sales taxes to cover services. The goal is to reform the way the state pays for public education and to reduce the burden on local property taxes.

Cutting back on state spending during a recession may sound logical, Martire said, but “it is quite clearly the absolute worst thing the state of Illinois could do.”

He joined two leaders in the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to cite new evidence from Mark Zandi, Moody’s’s chief economist, that the idea could help reduce the length of the economic recession in Illinois by preserving thousands of jobs and helping taxpayers spend money in their local economies.

The plan has been proposed in various forms before and would increase state income taxes, expand state sales taxes and provide targeted tax relief to low- and middle-income taxpayers. He added that broadening the sales tax to apply to services could reduce its rate, although it would be a hard sell to Cook County residents who already pay some of the highest sales tax rates in the country.

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat and longtime sponsor of education funding reform measures, said Blagojevich is no longer in a position to threaten to veto tax reforms, and Cullerton has been a co-sponsor of such reforms. However, he added, his peers in the Senate likely would not support an income tax increase if it didn’t lead to education funding reform and property tax relief.

GOP budget reforms
By Hilary Russell
House Republicans flatly disagree and say Illinois has a spending problem, according to House Minority Leader Tom Cross.

He joined his GOP Caucus members and John Tillman, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, to propose budget reforms that would help reduce the $9 billion deficit and increase accountability. Introduced today in a Statehouse news conference, the proposals include:

The Sunshine Act (HB 4134) would create a volunteer commission of four legislators and four members of the public to review each of the state’s executive branch programs. The bill is sponsored by Rep. David Reis, a Willow Hill Republican. The state does not have an accurate list of existing programs, making it difficult for lawmakers to keep track of them, GOP members said.

Reis is also sponsoring the Stimulus Watch Act, which would require the General Assembly’s approval to use federal stimulus funds to create new state programs. Once the funds run out for a particular program, it would end.

“Pay as You Go Spending” (HB 3189), sponsored by Rep. Mike Connelly, a Lisle Republican, would implement a start and end date for new state spending programs. Just to add a program another must be eliminated.

Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, is co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would change the required number of votes to raise taxes. Currently, a majority of 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate is needed to increase fees or taxes. Senger’s proposal would increase the required number of votes to a “supermajority,” or 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate, making it more difficult to pass tax bills.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said that the Republican’s timing was more showboating for their constituents than offering real solutions. “I find it very interesting that whenever there is a public policy decision to be made and the facts are clear that many people look for a political peg to take the chance to hang their hat on rather than take any political risk whatsoever.”

Gun control vs. gun rights
By Jamey Dunn
On the same day that thousands of people came to the Capitol building to participate in the annual gun owner lobbying day, every gun control measure voted on in a House committee advanced to the floor. A feeling of déjà vu was in the air.

Two of the gun control measures that passed through the committee today were proposed last session by the same two Democrat sponsors from Chicago. House Bill 12, sponsored by Rep. Luis Arroyo, would limit handgun purchases to one per person per month. House Bill 165 , proposed by Rep. Edward Acevedo, would ban semi-automatic assault weapons.

Other measures before the committee included House Bill 179, proposed by Chicago Democrat Rep. Deborah Graham, which would require that guns must either be equipped with gun locks or stored in lock boxes around minors. House Bill 180, also sponsored by Graham, would make gun dealers register with the Illinois State Police, who could then do spot checks on the dealers.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg, supports gun rights and is pushing for a few different bills that would allow counties to decide if they wanted to allow concealed carry of guns. One concealed carry bill sponsored by Sen. John Jones, a Republican from Mount Vernon, did not make it out of the Senate Public Health Committee yesterday.

Special elections
Two special election bills were killed today in a partisan showdown in the House Executive Committee. The hearing only included Cross’ special election bill and one proposed by Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Woodstock. Both votes split along party lines. Republicans on the committee were visibly miffed and protested the demise of the bills.

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