Monday, January 03, 2011

Lame-duck plans still coming together

By Jamey Dunn

While Illinois legislators are considering substantial legislation during the final days of their lame-duck session, they are still hammering out the details.

A large gaming expansion that passed in the Senate in November is undergoing some changes in the House. When the Senate passed Senate Bill 737, there was some disagreement between Senate sponsor Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, and House sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie. Link said he expected the bill to pass in the House, while Lang said it needed some tweaks.

Casino owners oppose the measure, which would allow five new casinos in the state and slot machines at horse racing tracks, saying the expansion would cut down on their already shrinking profits. A recent report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found that Illinois gambling revenues are at a 10-year low.

The measure, as passed in the Senate, would allow operating casinos to increase the number of gaming positions to 1,600 each immediately and 2,000 each in 2013.

Instead of presenting the bill to a House committee today, Lang called on stakeholders to come to his office and discuss changes. He told members of the casino industry to come forward with suggestions over the next 24 hours.

“This bill was not designed to hurt [casino owners,] but because the original drafting of the bill in the Senate does provide a certain competitive disadvantage … the amendments we are going to propose will provide certain relief to [casino owners] in some areas.”

Lang said he planned to offer casinos tax credits and the chance for expansion, among other perks. For this bill to succeed, Lang will have to get his new version of the measure passed in the House and the changes approved by the Senate before January 12, when the new legislative session begins and the bill — if not approved by both chambers — would die.

In other legislative action today, the chairwoman of a special Senate committee to reform education said she plans to put the brakes on proposed changes, that would give less credence to teacher seniority and make it more difficult for teacher's unions to strike. During House committee hearings, union officials have complained that legislators were railroading through drastic changes and cutting teachers out of negotiations.

“Give the people who will have to implement these reforms time to figure them out. Not months. Not years. But not days either. That’s not right. But it does make everyone watching this today wonder what the motivation is -- real change that improves education for kids, or something else,” Audry Soglin, executive director of the Illinois Education Association, said in November at a House committee hearing on the proposed reforms.

Illinois teacher’s unions are working on their own legislative package, which overlaps some proposals from reform groups. It also calls for expanded teacher mentoring programs, training for school board members and a “student bill of rights.” Maywood Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who was a key negotiator in new education laws passed as part of the state’s bid for funds from Race to the Top federal grant program, said she said she hopes to merge both plans.

Democratic leaders from both chambers are backing budget-related issues. Senate President John Cullerton is renewing a push to pass a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax increase through the House. The Senate already approved SB 44. If the House does not take up in the last days of the current session, Cullerton plans to introduce another cigarette tax increase after January 12.

House Speaker Michael Madigan is the sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would set limits on state spending by linking it to changes in average income.

If the budget restraints are too cumbersome during a given fiscal year, the governor could declare a “fiscal emergency.” The General Assembly, with approval from the comptroller and treasurer, would then be able to vote to increase spending levels above the limits set by the amendment.

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