Thursday, September 27, 2007

All on board?

When state lawmakers return to Springfield Monday, there could be more momentum behind a gaming-for-capital plan than there was at the beginning of this nearly nine-month session. The pressure is on for lawmakers to approve a capital bill to finance road and school construction projects and a plan to address mass transit shortfalls. Now House Republicans have changed their tune and indicated a willingness to consider the creation of a Chicago casino to pay for a capital plan. That leaves only House Speaker Michael Madigan to hop on the bandwagon of a Chicago casino. That's not expected.

The potential support among House Republicans also is unlikely to shore up enough votes to approve a three-casino plan passed by the Senate earlier this month. That idea was crafted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who did not seek input from House Democrats or Republicans before sending it to the floor for a vote. Members of both political parties approved the deal. Now it’s waiting to be considered by the House.

Cross, who convened a Chicago meeting about gaming with the three other legislative leaders and the governor Wednesday, said the Senate’s gaming-for-capital plan “needs a lot of work.” “I’m not comfortable with three new licenses,” he said in a phone conversation Thursday. “Our caucus has had some interest in the increased positions, and I think reluctantly, as this process has evolved, is open to the Chicago idea.” He added there are a few House Republicans who like the idea of granting three new gaming licenses because it would give their downstate districts an opportunity to build one of the new riverboats.

Cross said the push for a capital bill isn’t about getting money for individual projects. “The roads need repair, the bridges, the school construction plan, the higher ed facilities — the needs are great. So it’s not individual member projects. It’s just the legitimate needs that exist around the state.” The focus of the caucus will be to agree on a way to generate about $1 billion for the state’s share of a $10 billion capital plan. Cross added, “I think with increased positions and Chicago that you can probably get there.”

Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator for his caucus, said lawmakers shouldn’t get their hopes up. Not only is approving three new casinos going to be a tough sell in the House, he said approving new licenses doesn’t produce immediate gratification. He said while the state would get an initial big check in exchange for a new license, it would have no idea when the gambling facility would be up and running or whether its revenue would live up to expectations.

He added the Senate’s revenue estimates from its gaming plan are “very optimistic.” “It really is just anybody’s guess about what this thing in Chicago could generate. I don’t know that we can make those kinds of dollars. And if we don’t, we basically borrowed a big bunch of money and ask some future generation to find a way to pay it off because we gave them an insufficient revenue stream.”

And then there’s Madigan, who may be for a Chicago casino under the right but unlikely circumstances. His spokesman, Steve Brown: “In terms of a city-owned casino that meets all of the city requirements, if that ever came up by itself, I assume the speaker would support it. No expectation it ever will.” He also cited the Senate’s gaming bill as an example of a typical plan that has kernel of an idea but gets bogged down by various demands and falls over on its own weight.

The speaker is considering scheduling public hearings to air out gaming proposals, but there’s no schedule or format for any hearings right now, according to Brown. The House first will focus on some $470 million budget cuts made by the governor last month. The fun begins Monday with a special committee of the entire House. The chamber is expected to override those budget cuts when it convenes for the annual fall session Tuesday.

Throughout the two-week “veto session,” the General Assembly also is expected to consider mass transit subsidies and Chicago property tax relief. But there’s no indication the regular legislative session will end there.

Friday, September 21, 2007

More maneuvering means more fireworks

The governor sidestepped the legislative process again. He announced Thursday that he changed legislation dealing with high property taxes in Cook County, a controversial measure that took a lot of time and a lot of negotiating between legislative chambers. It’s now beholden to the ongoing power struggle between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The property tax relief bill approved by both chambers in August would have extended the so-called 7 percent solution, which caps the amount assessments can increase, for another three years (it started in 2004). It also increased the homeowners’ exemption to $33,000 and phased it out over the three years. The governor’s amendatory veto expanded the homeowners’ exemption even more — up to $40,000 — and made it permanent.

Because the governor used an amendatory veto to make the changes, both chambers have three options: agree with the changes, override the changes or let the bill die. If one chamber overrides it but the other doesn’t, the bill dies. Lawmakers would have to run another bill through the legislative process to extend the program that expires this year.

David Eldridge, legislative director for the Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois, said that was the intent of the original law: to phase out the 7 percent cap and replace it with a long-term homeowners exemption. “The intention there was to go at the targeted areas in Cook County that really need it rather than do a broad brush and capture areas that didn’t need the 7 percent [cap],” he said.

Now he said there’s worry of a slippery slope. The governor said his maneuver would cover at least 76 percent of Cook County residents, but the Taxpayers’ Federation has feared all along that the tax break would eventually apply to all of Cook County. “The fundamental question is, is it a good idea for 76 percent of Cook County to get this greater relief than the rest of the state gets, when there are other parts of state that are paying higher taxes than Cook County is,” Eldridge said.

That’s because when more people are getting bigger exemptions than they had before, someone else has to pick up the tab. Businesses argue they’re the ones paying a bigger portion of the tax burden.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and original sponsor of the 2004 legislation, said he actually would have supported the governor’s idea if it had gone through the legislative process. But it didn’t, and it led lawmakers to question the move’s constitutionality. “I’m unsure as to whether I can support an action that may have questionable motives and questionable underpinnings under the law,” Lang said.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Presidential Preference Poll

As the race for president heats up this fall, Dick Schuldt at the University of Illinois' Survey Research Office of the Center for State Policy and Leadership gives us an idea of how Illinois voters feel about the candidates in each political party. In short, Illinois' "favorite son," U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, holds a commanding lead over U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Here's the summary.
The breakdown of Democratic preferences is here.
The Republican breakdown is here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An exercise in futility?

In a mostly rosy display of bipartisan cooperation (with some thorns in the Senate president’s side), the Senate approved an all-in-one deal to create three new casinos as a way to pay for a capital plan. That $25 billion plan would finance road and school construction projects and provide a one-year subsidy for Chicago mass transit systems. Not everyone was happy. Worse, they predict trouble in the other chamber.

“I think it’s fine and dandy that we can be here and doing this,” said Sen. William Delgado, a Chicago Democrat and Latino Caucus leader. “But this is just an exercise in futility because it’s dead on arrival [in the House].” The House wasn’t represented in the past two weeks of negotiations and isn’t expected to support that large of a gaming expansion.

The Senate version of a gaming plan would license a new land-based casino in Chicago and two new riverboats elsewhere in the state. Side note: Despite an earlier version, this plan would require all casinos to abide by the statewide smoking ban that starts in January.

A large part of the gaming revenue would subsidize mass transit with $425 million over three years. The Regional Transportation Authority, which includes the Chicago Transportation Authority, Metra rail services and Pace suburban bus services, has been threatening to lay off hundreds of workers and cut services if the state doesn’t lend a helping hand. The deal would grant the agency $200 million for operating funds in the first year (downstate would get $30 million). The catch is that if the General Assembly doesn’t come up with a way for the RTA to generate a long-term revenue source, then the RTA does not have to repay the $200 million.

Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the gaming bill, said this plan would buy time for the General Assembly and the governor to work out a long-term funding solution for mass transit, and it avoids raising the sales tax in the Chicago area. “With this route, if you don’t play, you don’t pay. If you don’t go to the boats, it’s not costing you a nickel,” Hendon said earlier Tuesday. “And I think that’s the best way and the fiscally responsible way, the prudent way, to help the people of this state.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan, on the other hand, favors the regional sales tax for the long-term solution. He has also repeatedly said there’s not enough support in his chamber to approve a deal for new casinos. The House could tweak the Senate’s plan to do a limited expansion of gaming, but that risks being shot down in the Senate again. As Hendon said, “I just hope the House doesn’t tweak so much ‘till it’s dead on arrival when it gets over here.”

The governor said in a Statehouse press conference Tuesday night that he still opposes a regional sales tax increase and favors ending a series of business tax breaks to generate revenue.

So we have the governor, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson on the same page. But then there’s Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross on a separate page, and they may not even agree with each other on a gaming for capital and mass transit plan. Veto session will provide the next chance to see how close (or if) the four legislative leaders and the governor can come to a compromise.

Monday, September 17, 2007

All in one: gaming, capital and mass transit

The Senate could consider a new gaming bill that would pay for a capital plan and, potentially, Chicago mass transit all in one. (The governor temporarily saved mass transit last week.) Some Senate Republicans favor the all-in-one strategy, but its fate is uncertain in the House. But House Speaker Michael Madigan wasn’t invited to the Springfield meeting between Senate leadership and Gov. Rod Blagojevich this afternoon. After the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson said, “How do you leave out the speaker of the House in this discussion? But that’s what’s happened.”

One gaming proposal outlined by Sen. James DeLeo, a Chicago Democrat and assistant majority leader, would create a new casino in Chicago and two others somewhere in the state. The revenue, an undetermined amount, would help pay for road and school construction projects as well as mass transit. It also would serve as an alternative to the House’s version of a mass transit bill that would increase the sales tax in the Chicago region and allow a real estate transfer tax in the city of Chicago.

But opinions differ about the all-in-one approach. DeLeo says Senate Democrats think the chamber should focus on gaming and capital first. “If we have a capital and gaming bill, we can certainly give the [Regional Transportation Authority] a lot more funding than anticipated. So it’s a better way to go. And we wouldn’t have to do a sales tax.” It also would satisfy the governor’s repeated no-tax pledge for state income or sales taxes.

Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican, said she actually agreed with the governor and credited him for opposing the sales tax increase, which she says is regressive and would unfairly apply to food and drugs. Instead, she favors the consideration of more transportation-related fees, such as those for drivers’ licenses and vehicle stickers.

The governor, on the other hand, still favors closing “corporate loopholes,” or ending various tax breaks for businesses. Eric Zorn now with the Chicago Tribune has more here.

The Senate Democrats and Republicans are meeting behind closed doors in their respective caucuses tonight. The chamber is scheduled to convene around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and break for committees around 11 a.m. or noon. Meanwhile, House Democrats continue to hold a series of budget hearings around the state to build support for overrides of Blagojevich’s budget cuts. One interesting thing I missed before: According to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the governor’s budget cuts total $470 million, not the $463 million announced by the governor’s office.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mass transit riders saved for now

The Regional Transportation Authority accepted Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s offer to advance all of the agency’s 2008 funding as a way to prolong massive layoffs and service cuts for seven more weeks. Two of the 10 board members, including former treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, voted no.

The $78 million covers suburban transit services for the disabled and the Chicago Transit Authority’s fare subsidy, but relief is only temporary. The governor offered the advanced payment so state lawmakers would have more time to come up with a long-term solution.

We wrote about the House’s failed attempt to approve legislation September 4. Even if the House had approved the mass transit reform bill, the governor would reject it because it includes a regional sales tax increase. “[The governor] thinks we can address the long-term needs of the RTA, as well as mass transit agencies all over the state, without raising the sales tax,” said Abby Ottenhoff, Blagojevich’s spokeswoman. “As he describes it, it really ends up being a back door fare hike on people who rely on mass transit.”

She added, “He’s committed to coming up with a long-term solution, working with legislators and working with the transit agencies starting Monday in Springfield when the Senate is back in town.”

The Senate is scheduled to come back Monday and could discuss mass transit, but a) the pressure is off for the General Assembly to act now when veto session is scheduled to start October 2, and b) the governor’s veto hangs over the existing mass transit bill. That means a capital bill is the only significant option for a long-term solution. And a capital bill still relies on a compromise on how much to expand gaming, a contentious issue between the four legislative caucuses. In other words, mass transit riders will be on a roller coaster right up to the next doomsday.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The art of compromise

Gov. Rod Blagojevich attempted to execute another power play to make House Speaker Michael Madigan seem like the problem in state government. The governor charges the speaker and his staff with violating the state constitution for delaying action on the governor’s budget cuts. The good news is that one separate compromise allowed the state to distribute overdue payments to hospitals. The bad news is who knows whether the political maneuvering will ever stop long enough for the four legislative leaders and the governor to compromise on a capital budget and mass transit subsidies.

The governor sues again
Blagojevich sued Madigan two weeks ago in hopes that the courts would rule that the speaker has to call special sessions at the date and time specified by the governor. Blagojevich is now suing Madigan’s House clerk, Mark Mahoney. The lawsuit, filed in Sangamon County court September 11, charges that the clerk should have entered the governor’s budget vetoes into public record as soon as the House met for session September 4.

Part of the reason the vetoes weren’t recorded then is because Madigan scheduled 19 budget hearings across the state to discuss “Blagojevich’s budget savagery.” The hearings also are designed to build support for overriding those vetoes. Steve Brown, the speaker’s spokesman, said the same about this lawsuit as he said about the suit against Madigan. “This is just a waste of resources and really no merit to the case at all. And the hearings will continue.”

The administration tried to defend the governor’s budget cuts before they were ripped to shreds by angry constituents. Agency directors held press conferences yesterday in Decatur, Marion and Kankakee, the first three sites of Madigan’s budget hearings. “They were in the same areas the House hearings are in because we feel it’s important to make sure these areas have the facts,” said Rebecca Rausch, the governor’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

The location of the hearings relate to the budget cuts that canned projects sought by House Democrats who have at some point bucked the administration’s priorities. For instance, Kankakee is represented by Democratic Rep. Lisa Dugan of Bradley. She requested grants for local fire and police departments to buy and update equipment, for sexual assault centers in Iroquois and Kankakee counties and for a domestic violence shelter. “He cut all of mine and considered it nonessential,” she said this morning. Why? “The Democratic House members lost everything that they requested, and I’m assuming that it’s for the reason that most of us believe, that is because unfortunately, the governor doesn’t like our stand on wanting to compromise on his health care plan.”

Dugan laughed out loud when asked about the governor suing the House clerk. “This is a sad state of affairs in the state of Illinois, and the governor seems to just want to continue to make it worse.”

So the governor is punishing people who don’t want to compromise on his health care plan, but lawmakers rejected his health care plan because the governor wouldn’t compromise on the funding source. We're running in circles following these disagreements. Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, blames the governor for not compromising. “He fails to persuade anybody to accept his point of view and refuses to accept a more reality-based proposal. Not a whole lot you can do about that.”

I know the feeling. There’s not a lot we can do about the sideshows going on around the state with little action in Springfield. And when action does return to the Capitol October 2 for the fall veto session, we’ll witness a series of shows about the budget overrides, a capital budget and transportation subsidies. The House is expected to have enough votes to override at least some of the governor's budget cuts, but who knows whether they'll have a chance in the Senate. And who knows whether the four caucuses will be able to compromise on a funding source — four new casinos, one new casino, no new casinos — to finance road and school construction projects. And who knows whether lawmakers are willing to stick their necks out by voting for a mass transit plan that raises taxes while knowing the governor will veto it. That would require the four caucuses, again, to compromise and agree to override his veto.

Hynes: Compromise minimizes damage for hospitals
Hospitals around the state have been waiting for reimbursements for the cost of caring for poor and uninsured patients. The reimbursements come through a hospital assessment program, where hospitals pay a tax and then get back $3.6 billion from the federal government over three years. A series of missteps and political infighting delayed the payments due to hospitals in March. In a rare act of teamwork, Illinois’ constitutional offices recently agreed to get an immediate infusion of cash through short-term borrowing. That cash will allow the state to disburse half of the $1.2 billion due to hospitals.

“Through cooperation of the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the treasurer and the comptroller, we’re going to be able to minimize the damage,” said Comptroller Dan Hynes. “But it still was unfortunate that it happened the way it did.”

The federal reimbursement and assessment will allow the loan to be repaid within the month, said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat and architect of the assessment plan. The delay, however, means the state can’t disburse the next $600 million installment until the General Assembly comes back to Springfield to approve the new spending authority. Schoenberg adds that it’s also unfortunate that the delay could taint the state’s opportunity to get federal approval for another assessment program when the current one expires after 2008. “It’s not far fetched for the federal regulators at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to question whether Illinois actually needs the money so badly if the state is taking so long to disburse the money once it receives federal approval,” he said.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Transit trouble

The Illinois House failed to approve a regional sales tax increase to help fund the mass transit systems in and around Chicago today, leaving little time for the House to gain the 10 votes needed to prevent the Regional Transportation Authority from laying off employees and cutting services. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat, is expected to come back as soon as House Speaker Michael Madigan thinks he reversed the votes of some House Republicans and downstate Democrats. That’s not going to happen this week, and it might not happen before the September 16 “drop dead” date outlined by the RTA’s budget plan.

The RTA oversees the three separate agencies of the Chicago Transportation Authority, Metra rail services and Pace suburban bus services. It was subject of a state audit in March that said the systems’ “serious financial shortfall” combines with representation problems on the separate boards, an outdated funding formula and an aging infrastructure.

Hamos’ measure would enact many of the recommendations in the audit. It foremost would increase a regional sales tax, raising money to be split among the CTA, Metra and Pace. It also would allow a Chicago-only real estate transfer tax that would have to be voted on by the Chicago City Council and would cover CTA’s pension and retiree health care costs. Metra also would gain authority to borrow up to $1 billion to secure a federal match for capital projects, especially for suburb-to-suburb routes. And the legislation would reform the three agencies’ pension systems by such changes as requiring higher employee contributions, higher retirement age for pensions and limits on health care benefits.

Without the legislation, Hamos said the region and the state would feel its effects through job loss, limited transportation routes, increased traffic congestion, air pollution and a poorer rating for Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

Standing next to Madigan in a Statehouse press conference following the floor vote, Hamos said, “People did not so much pick at the substance of the bill, which was very promising, actually, but instead were talking about other agendas that they still continue to bring to the table.” She said the only portion that would be looked at for possible change is what Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, said was concerning.

Black said while the legislation would require the state to match 5 percent of new tax revenues to help mass transit services for disabled riders, he didn’t like that it would not cap the state’s contribution as tax revenue increased over the years. “You’re talking the state share growing by hundreds of millions of dollars over the next four to five fiscal years,” he said on the House floor. “It could be in excess of $1 billion by FY10, considerably more money than it has ever been in the history.”

House Republican Leader Tom Cross said his caucus rejects Hamos’ plan because members are holding out for a more comprehensive capital bill to fund school and road construction projects around the state. “You can’t do one without the other,” he said, but added, “The belief from a lot of us is we will never see a capital bill.”

He said even if there were movement on a capital bill, underlying tensions could stymie a deal. “I’m a little concerned about the trust issue that permeates around here — or lack of trust that exists in this building. I think we need to work through that. I don’t think we left … on a good note, so we’ve got to find a way to work through some of those trust issues.”

Willing to look at a Chicago casino previously promoted by Senate President Emil Jones and the governor, Cross said that’s not looking too good, either. “The more that discussion goes on, it just seems tougher and tougher to do. We may need to look at a different avenue.”

The governor issued a statement about the House vote that said “Speaker Madigan’s tax increase” was a “backdoor fare hike” and that the legislature was correct to reject that approach. He said he would continue to advocate the end of some business tax credits (a.k.a. closure of “corporate loopholes”) and find other sources of revenue to fund mass transit.