Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Capital plan heads to the House

By Bethany Jaeger, Hilary Russell and Jamey Dunn
Senate President John Cullerton said he delivered on an inaugural promise to approve a major infrastructure program this spring. The $26 billion capital program, which would rely on tax and fee increases and new gaming revenues, won Senate approval and now heads to the House in what many legislators hope will continue to be a bipartisan effort.

If approved by the House, the new plan would build onto a $3 billion “mini-capital” program approved earlier this year. Combining state, local and federal funding in both the mini- and the full-capital plans would mean a $29 billion investment into roads, bridges, mass transit, schools, universities and community colleges, parks, libraries, museums, water systems and technology projects.

But not all the spending was earmarked in today’s capital plan. Legislators still would have to negotiate how and where the last $1.5 billion would be spent. The General Assembly also still has to negotiate how to balance an operating budget that is projected to be $11.6 billion out of whack over two fiscal years. But that is separate from the capital program.

Cullerton and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno stood together in a news conference after the chamber approved the construction. While several Republicans and a couple of Democrats opposed the revenue ideas (here’s the vote of 47-12), the spending plan received unanimous support.

“If you look at the totals of the votes, perhaps we could have done this with just Democrats,” Cullerton said, “but then we’d have acrimony, and it wouldn’t bode well for the future, and it wouldn’t bode well for the [operating] budget.”

Radogno said the four caucuses worked together to ensure a fair distribution of the money throughout all regions of the state. “That is not always easy to do. Then you cross-cut that with partisan politics. It is not easy to come up with something fair and balanced, and I truly believe that this is a fair and balanced product.”

Radogno added that while the revenue package is “not ideal,” it is “real revenue,” as opposed to borrowing without having money to repay the debt. “This proposal doesn’t do that. It pays for what we’re going to be getting.”

Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who has urged for more money for Chicago-area transportation systems, claimed victory because the capital program would include a more equitable split of money between northeastern Illinois and downstate. While some of the money will be distributed through a traditional formula for road projects that tends to give more money to downstate road projects, about $3.5 billion would go to new road and transit projects through discretionary spending. Cullerton said, “When it’s all said and done on roads, it’s probably 50-50 throughout the entire state.”

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, did not support the revenue portion. Cullerton later said that he met with Meeks several times to address his concerns about minority representation in unions and construction jobs. Cullerton said he looks to fund a vocational training program when the leaders negotiate the final $1.5 billion of the capital program.

It’s been 10 years since Illinois had such a major infrastructure package, and the last six years of gridlock between former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the legislature took a toll. Numerous legislators commented about reviving a bipartisan spirit after a span of dysfunction, and “what a difference a year makes.” Cullerton ended by saying: “This is just back to normal. I’ve been here 30 years — 24 of them were normal.”

Here’s a breakdown of the revenue-makers:

  • Two separate types of gaming would generate about $375 million. That includes legalizing video gaming machines in places where alcohol is served. The state would tax and regulate the machines and garner revenue.
  • A second program would allow the state to hire a private company to manage the Illinois Lottery for up to 10 years. It also would sell lottery tickets online, with the goal of marketing to people who don’t currently play the Lottery. It would make Illinois the first state in the nation to allow “Internet lottery,” which would be contingent on approval from the U.S. Justice Department.
  • But creating new methods to access gambling is similar to playing with fire, according to Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action and Alcohol Addiction Problems, who likened the programs to granting easy access to underage players.

  • It would reclassify soft drinks, candy, beauty and some hygiene products for sales tax purposes and generate up to $150 million.
  • The sales tax on alcohol also would increase for wine (from 73 cents to $1.39 per gallon), spirits (from $4.50 to $8.55 per gallon) and beer (from 18.5 cents to 23.1 cents per gallon). It would generate about $113 million a year. Opponents said taxing alcoholic beverages is not a constant source of revenue for the state.

Driving-related fees
Increased fees would bring in more than $330 million a year. The increases would include:
  • Title certificate fees from $65 to $95.
  • Registration fees from $15 to $25.
  • Driver’s license fees from $10 to $30.
  • Fines for semitrailers that are over the approved weight.
Revenue bill is HB 255.
Spending bill is HB 312.
Bonding bill is HB 2400.

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