Governor's free ride anything but

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

And here we thought mass transit in the Chicago area was on the verge of "doomsday" if the Legislature didn't get the system more money, and lots of it, this very minute.

Now Gov. Rod Blagojevich says mass transit systems throughout the state can afford to give free bus and train rides to senior citizens to the tune of $15 million a year in lost revenue, with some predicting double that. Curious, since we'd been told mass transit needed every penny of the some $400 million the Legislature narrowly approved last week by slapping sales and real estate transfer tax increases on Chicago and its suburbs. Perhaps things aren't so bad, after all.

Or maybe they are, and the governor just thinks senior citizens and their votes are more important than the 28-year-old single mother of three whose fares may jump to make up the difference. Hers is a double wallop, as she'll pay that increase in sales tax, too. Meanwhile, Blagojevich must be under the impression that all seniors are penniless, as there is no means test for that affluent suburban couple taking the train into the city to watch the Lyric Opera.

Along with universal health care, the governor is now championing universal transportation for senior citizens, which may be unique nationally. He certainly has a flair for the unexpected, and for playing games. Apparently he shared his idea with precious few outside his office — not even the Chicago Transit Authority was tipped — before announcing it with great fanfare about doing right by "grandma." He stopped just short of breaking out the hankies.

It would be one thing if Blagojevich was sincere about helping retirees. We suspect his motivation instead was to grab headlines that read "Free rides" instead of "Governor breaks his campaign pledge on taxes," especially with House Speaker Michael Madigan chiding him for the latter. As usual it's not leadership from this governor, but the same old populist pandering designed to cover his political behind.

For the most part downstaters are not paying for this bailout, unless they happen to go shopping in Chicago. There is a percentage increase in the reimbursement formula for downstate transit systems in this bill, so the likes of CityLink in Peoria will get more state dollars. It doesn't create the gaping hole in the state budget that a previous proposal did, though there is a match that will have the state allocating one-third of the revenues produced by these Chicago-area tax hikes, pegged at some $100 million this fiscal year.

It's the type of "continuing implication" that state Rep. David Leitch fears, and the reason he says he didn't vote for this package (which is $530 million in total, given some add-on expenditures). The Legislature makes the worst decisions in times of crisis, the kind that have "future General Assemblies saying, ‘What in the world were you thinking?' " Leitch says.

With the governor's change, legislators like Leitch now get another crack at a bill that passed with little room to spare after being defeated before. Lawmakers must trudge back to Springfield, again at taxpayers' expense, at the behest of a Blagojevich who must squelch a giggle every time he claims to feel their pain.

It's possible, perhaps probable, that lawmakers will accept the governor's editing, though some may be tempted to express their frustration with him by reversing themselves and killing the deal. They also could override his veto, which would take a three-fifths majority. That would require the assistance of more Republicans and downstaters, which seems unlikely, as many of them tried unsuccessfully to tether this bill to a capital construction program statewide.

In any event, Blagojevich had his transit bailout, in a Chicago metro area that really is critical to the state's economy, but he just couldn't resist the allure of governing dangerously. Good job, governor, in continuing to make a case as one of Illinois' worst.