Thursday, May 21, 2009

Capital plan passes both chambers

By Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Photograph by Hilary Russell

Right: The Illinois House approved a revenue package by a vote of 86-30-1, with opposition mostly objecting to new gaming sources.

The House tonight approved a major capital construction program, wrapping up one of the three major issues that lawmakers seek to tackle before session adjourns at the end of the month. The next step for the bill is approval from Gov. Pat Quinn, but whether that will happen quickly and when projects would begin is still up in the air.

The $26 billion plan will be funded by tax, fee and fine increases. The state will contribute about $11.5 billion, which will leverage federal and local funds. An expansion of lottery ticket sales and legalizing video gaming in bars, restaurants and truck stops will generate revenue for the state’s contribution.

However, House Minority Leader Tom Cross said he does not know exactly when construction would start. “Maybe summer, early fall. But I think even if you don’t have specific shovels in the ground, you’ve got engineers and architects putting plans together,” he said after the program won House approval. “We’ve got some good movement in that mini-capital plan, so there’s some activity out there. Would we all love to see it all tomorrow? Yeah, but it’s not going to happen.”

Some of the proposed revenue sources would not immediately bring in money. Video gaming would require implementing a complicated oversight process. Many establishments already have video poker machines, and some illegally pay out to winners. If the legislation becomes law, the payouts would have to be documented and regulated. Existing machines would have to be replaced or retrofitted to meet monitoring standards spelled out in the legislation. Proponents claim that the new regulation could weed out organized crime that has been perceived to be associated with illegal video poker.

Leasing the Illinois Lottery to a private entity is contingent on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, and the state has no control over how soon, if ever, that will come. Selling lottery tickets online is an unprecedented move. If approved, getting the operation up and running could take awhile.

Legalizing video gaming and the proposed changes to the lottery kept the plan from getting unanimous support. Cross said it was a difficult vote for some members of the GOP caucus. “It’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to have a little pain in it. And, there are people that didn’t like it,” he said.

Some Democrats didn’t like it, either. The majority of “no” votes among Democrats came from suburban Chicago lawmakers. Many echoed Quinn’s statement yesterday that the state’s operating budget, which funds government operations, health care, education and social services, should have taken priority over a construction plan.

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat and the only lawmaker to vote “present” on the revenue sources, said he was hesitant to approve what he considered a gaming expansion and the privatization of the lottery. He added that while the legislature found money to build new schools, lawmakers haven’t yet figured out how to pay for the teachers who would work in those schools.

Legislators also expressed concern that Quinn might not sign the capital plan into law until the General Assembly sends an operating budget to his desk. He has 60 days to act before the capital program automatically becomes law. Cross said that Quinn had told him he would sign the bill, but he worries that Quinn could delay the signing.

Regardless, lawmakers expressed relief that both chambers finally approved a long-awaited infrastructure program after consecutive years of false starts.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said: “The state of Illinois has needed an infrastructure bill for a very long time. We need to put people to work, we need to fix roads, bridges and schools and water mains, and I believe this is an economic stimulus package done by the state of Illinois. And it was critical that it passed.”

Now the legislature can turn its focus to the operating budget and government reforms. While some procurement and employee ethics reforms advanced to the Senate today, the Senate also could begin debate about the governor’s Illinois Reform Commission’s proposals tomorrow.

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