Budget, gambling, moment of silence in schools on lawmakers agenda
The 2007 edition of the Illinois General Assembly already is known for its oddities, and the next couple of weeks should add to that reputation.
Consider: All lawmakers will return to Springfield this week for the start of the six-day veto session, even though the regular session continues to sputter on.
A major focus of the session will be restoring budget cuts made by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, even though the House never passed the bills that allow all of the money to be spent in the first place.
Lawmakers could discuss a massive expansion of gambling, something that Blagojevich once opposed but which he now embraces.
And they’ll do it knowing that the scheduled end of the veto session Oct. 12 probably isn’t the last time they will be in Springfield this year.
“It’s been an unusual year, to say the least,” said Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville.
“This must be setting some kind of record,” said Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria.
Much of the focus during the veto session will be on the state budget and the governor’s spending cuts. Barely two months ago, the General Assembly finally approved a new $59 billion state budget that lawmakers hailed because it gave an unprecedented increase to education and fully funded state pensions while also giving increases to a wide variety of other programs.
Blagojevich cut $463 million from that, money he said would have been spent on pork projects and “special interest spending.” He said a better use of the money would be to expand health care programs that the General Assembly refused to approve last spring.
However, many lawmakers said Blagojevich cut far more than “pork” and “special interest spending.” Some cuts hit home health care workers, others affected services for the mentally ill, community clinics and other social programs. House Speaker Madigan, D-Chicago, scheduled hearings around the state to give those affected by the cuts a chance to complain publicly. Madigan has scheduled a day-long Committee of the Whole hearing in the House to cover much of the same ground.
“I think the speaker is just giving another opportunity for people who have suffered cuts to come and describe the importance of restoring the money,” Leitch said.
The House will vote Tuesday on how much money to return to the budget. Not all of it may be restored, said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, the top budget negotiator for House Democrats. In some cases, he said, the cuts apply to operating budgets for Blagojevich’s agencies.
“If he is telling us he can live without the money, we’ll respect his wishes,” Hannig said.
Likewise, if a university or some other organization believes it can live with the cuts, they will stand, Hannig said.
“We’re not suggesting that everything needs to be overridden,” he said.
Whatever the House does restore will mean nothing if the Senate doesn’t also vote to restore money. Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, has said he will not let the Senate vote on restoring any money. A spokeswoman said last week that Jones has not changed his mind.
However, some Senate Democrats want to see at least some of the money put back and have not given up hope that they can change Jones’ mind.
“What I hope will happen is we can all sit down and have a discussion about these outstanding issues,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan and others think some of the reductions can be restored as part of an overall compromise on things like a capital spending and mass transit bill, two of the issues still unresolved by the legislature.
But it is unclear if the General Assembly will do much beyond acting on the budget and other bills vetoed by Blagojevich. Madigan said the House will hold hearings on a capital bill and gambling expansion needed to pay for it, but has not said when.
Lawmakers still haven’t approved permanent funding for mass transit in the Chicago area, but that may not be resolved during the veto session, either. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker is still trying to round up votes for a bill to increase the sales tax in the Chicago area and the real estate transfer tax in Chicago, with that money going to mass transit.
The Senate, however, wants to use $200 million from the gambling bill that hasn’t passed the House to prop up the transit systems until next summer.
There’s also no indication the House will pass a bill that allows school districts to collect the $400 per pupil funding increase earmarked for them in the budget.
However, the state can’t give schools the extra money until the General Assembly passes a technical budget bill. That bill has passed the Senate, but not the House.
Lawmakers will try to override Blagojevich’s vetoes of non-budget bills, too.
One high-profile bill vetoed by Blagojevich called for a mandatory moment of silence at the start of each school day. Current state law makes the moment optional.
Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said she will try to override the veto.
“As I read the governor’s justification, it appears he put a whole lot of emphasis on prayer in schools. It’s not that,” Lightford said. “It’s a moment of silence and reflection. Whatever that child needs to think about. We do it in the General Assembly every day.”
Sullivan will try to override the governor’s veto of his bill setting a 65 mph speed limit for trucks on rural interstates. The truck limit is now 55.
Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, said he will try to revive a bill designed to determine how well Blagojevich’s children’s health care programs are working. The bill would have required the state to disclose how many doctors are participating in the programs, where they are located, how many specialists participate, whether they are accepting new patients and other information Mautino said is necessary to evaluate the programs.
Blagojevich used his amendatory veto powers to prohibit release of the information, Mautino said.
“He did it under the guise of protecting privacy,” Mautino said. “You can get that information in surrounding states in 30 minutes. I think it should be made available.”
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.