Friday, January 26, 2007

Dream job ends at IDOT

Illinois’ Secretary of Transportation Tim Martin resigned today, according to an abrupt announcement from the governor’s office that provides little explanation other than he’s returning to the private sector.

Martin has led the Illinois Department of Transportation since 2003 under Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In the governor's release, Martin calls it “a dream job for any engineer that grew up in Illinois.” The governor’s announcement says Martin’s leadership was “instrumental in modernizing and making IDOT more efficient and focused the agency on better using technology to accomplish its goals.” He also marked the agency’s 2006 record of having the fewest fatalities since 1924.

Also on Martin’s watch, however, is IDOT’s status as one of at least 15 agencies to have received federal subpoenas in an ongoing federal investigation into hiring and contracting practices within Blagojevich’s administration. No one has been charged with wrongdoing.

IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover says Martin resigned and was not asked to leave. These types of changes are common as administrations transition into new terms, he says.

Milt Sees, IDOT director of highways, takes over until the governor nominates a permanent secretary, which requires Senate approval.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mayday, mayday

The state has lost nearly $17 million over four years because the Illinois Department of Transportation hasn’t billed politicians and businesses the full cost of flying them between Chicago and Springfield, according to a state audit released this week.

The Illinois Auditor General’s office says the rates charged to businesses have been the same since 1981, and the rates charged to state officials and politicians has been the same since ’95. Passengers are only charged for their seat. That means if the plane seats nine but only six people are on board, IDOT eats the cost flying three empty seats. And because the planes are based in Springfield’s airport, they often fly empty to Chicago, pick up the politicians, fly them to Springfield, fly them back to the Windy City and then return empty to the Capitol. Over four years, the cost of operating the air fleet reached nearly $20 million, but IDOT only collected $2.8 million.

The audit points out that the money comes from elsewhere, meaning the Road Fund and the state’s main general fund. IDOT officials say the goal has never been to make money on the air fleet, but the agency agrees to most of the auditor’s recommendations.

The audit calls for a review of ways to be efficient and for better documentation of the reasons and the true costs of operating the flight. Only then can IDOT figure out how many planes and helicopters are needed and whether the agency should adjust its rates.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Illinois buzz

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama may use Springfield as a backdrop to announce whether he’ll run for president in 2008, according to state Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat. Fritchey posted a blog that said he was on the conference call with Obama and reported he could make the announcement in Springfield February 10. We’ll confirm that as soon as possible.

Obama announced Tuesday that he filed papers to form a presidential exploratory committee. His second to last sentence reads, “And on February 10th, at the end of these decisions and in my home state of Illinois, I’ll share my plans with my friends, neighbors and fellow Americans.”

Hospital money
Another topic — federal funds for Illinois hospitals — has Illinois lawmakers saying the state is in better shape today than it was before. The federal government approved a program that will bring $1.8 billion in federal matching funds to Illinois health care over the next three years.

But the money won’t be distributed to hospitals throughout Illinois until the Illinois legislature approves a measure that gives the Department of Healthcare and Family Services the ability to distribute the money.

The money comes in the form of federal matching funds for a hospital tax enacted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in July 2005. The so-called hospital assessment program didn’t receive federal approval until last fall.

“Our financial situation has improved dramatically with the recent good news from Washington,” says state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, the Evanston Democrat who sponsored the legislation creating the assessment program. “Certainly a great deal of credit goes to former [U.S. House] Speaker [J. Dennis] Hastert for making sure we receive federal approval in one of his last acts as house speaker in Washington.” Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored the measure in the House.

Hospitals could expect to receive the money in the next few months, according to Director of Healthcare and Family Services Barry Maram, who spoke Tuesday at press conference at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield.

The appropriation needed from the Illinois legislature was recently tied to a controversial measure that would allow the state to give pay raises to lawmakers, judges and department heads. The Senate approved the measure. The House gutted it because Speaker Michael Madigan says he does not think the state should approve any spending that is not necessary right now.

When the money is released, hospitals around the state will be able to spend it on necessary medical equipment, recruitment of doctors or anything that helps the hospital serve Medicaid patients, Maram says.

Ed McDowall, spokesman for Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, says, “The assessment will significantly reduce that gap between the cost of care and the value of the Medicaid reimbursements.” Medicaid reimbursements pay for about 75 percent of the cost of providing care Medicaid patients.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Now we know

Last month I blogged about something I found strange, that the two dominant electric utilities in Illinois weren’t on the same side of the proposal to phase in electricity rate increases over the next three years (see December 14 blog). Commonwealth Edison supported the so-called compromise introduced by Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and House Minority Leader Tom Cross. Ameren Illinois opposed it.

A House committee Sunday shed light on the politics shaping the debate. House Speaker Michael Madigan suggested ComEd was at the table in drafting the Jones-Cross bill. Ameren was not. Neither was the attorney general’s office or the Citizens Utility Board.

Madigan asked ComEd’s general counsel when he found out about the Jones-Cross phase-in plan. Counsel Darryl Bradford said he and ComEd CFO Robert McDonald talked to legislative staffers and offered suggestions for the bill. None of the others who testified Sunday — Susan Hedman of the Illinois Attorney Genera’s office, David Kolata of CUB and Michael Sullivan of Ameren — said they knew about the bill until shortly before it surfaced in the Senate.

Sunday night, Cross said ComEd didn’t write the phase-in proposal. His staff and Jones’ staff served up the meat and potatoes. “ComEd may have ultimately been talked to, but the idea of coming together and trying to work out a compromise came from us talking, and Emil talking and his chief of staff talking,” he said. “We knew where we wanted to go with it. We were just trying to get some specifics.”

He said he wasn’t aware of whether Ameren Illinois was asked to provide specifics for the language in the bill.

Also Sunday night, enough House Democrats and Republicans voted to approve a three-year rate freeze extension. It’s not expected to see daylight in the Senate. Even if it does, Cross said the rate-freeze measure could be thrown out because he expects the electric utilities to end up in bankruptcy court or federal court.

The Illinois Commerce Commission already approved a different plan to phase in electricity rate increases over three years. The big difference is that consumers can opt to phase in their rate increases over three years, but they would have to repay the deferred amount each year between 2010 and 2012. If no legislation makes it to the governor’s desk, the ICC-approved phase-in will remain in effect. It started January 2.