Illinois legislature: six weeks left and much to do

Doug Finke

Their calendars say the Illinois House and Senate have six weeks left to hammer out a budget, maybe pass a public works construction bill, approve gambling expansion to pay for it and deal with a litany of other issues.

Rank-and-file lawmakers, though, are already gearing up for another long summer in Springfield, mainly because the frosty relations among Democratic legislative leaders show no signs of thawing.

“Every year what we get done in Springfield depends on the relationships of the powers that be,” said Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago. “Given what’s transpired in the first three months (of the spring session), last year may look good in comparison.”

“I think the relationships are just as toxic, if not more so, than they were last year,” said Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria. “When they refuse to talk to each other – indeed, when they hate each other -- there is a total breakdown.”

“They” means Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. The Republican leaders are Sen. Frank Watson of Greenville and Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego.

Madigan himself is giving no signs that tensions are easing. He didn’t attend a meeting called by Blagojevich last week to talk about a capital bill, sending a top lieutenant instead. In recent speeches to groups, Madigan has been referring to the situation in Springfield as a “civil war.”

“Some people like to trivialize it by using the word ‘feud’ or ‘personality dispute,’” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. “It’s a much more dramatic situation that’s gone on here for over a year.”

The final straw in a series of insults last year was the fact that $50 million in pet project money for House Democrats was cut from last year’s budget, while Senate Democrats’ money was spared. Madigan thought he had a deal with Jones to restore the House money, but Jones didn’t follow through.

“That created really hard feelings that are running deep right now,” said Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria. “I think we are in worse shape than a year ago.”

Through a spokeswoman, Jones declined to comment on his relationship with Madigan. Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch would say only that the governor was pleased with the outcome of last week’s meeting on a capital bill.

Frustrated lawmakers don’t want to see this session devolve, like last year’s, into another long summer in Springfield.

“I’ve said if you lock 10 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate from both parties in a room together, we’ll put a package together,” said Rep. Joseph Lyons, D-Chicago. “Maybe we should get the leaders out of the room and let us sit down and do it.”

Here’s where some key issues stand at the General Assembly heads into its (scheduled) final six weeks.

--Budgets: That’s budgets, plural. The Blagojevich administration believes the current budget has a $750 million hole in it, and the Senate agreed to let Blagojevich take $530 million from restricted state funds to plug the hole. But, speaking for Madigan, Brown called the idea – which was coupled with health care expansion and restoration of the House Democrats’ projects – delusional.

Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, believes the House may end up taking some money from restricted accounts, although not as much as the Senate. Pressure is building because the state is withholding money promised to groups – like extension services – because it doesn’t have enoug cash.

When negotiators do get around to a new state budget, it will be with austerity in mind.

“We’re looking at how to stay above water,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago.

--Tax rebates: Blagojevich wants give most families a one-time tax credit of $300 per child and businesses a one-time cut of 20 percent on their corporate income taxes. However, little has been heard about that plan since the governor proposed it in his February budget speech.

Lawmakers are skeptical the state can afford the plan anyway. Budget negotiator Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, suggested last week that the idea was good for a one-day public relations boost for the governor.

--Capital spending: Blagojevich proposed a $25 billion public works construction program (including state, federal and local funds). The leaders – except Madigan – met last week to discuss how to pass it and another get-together is scheduled this week.

At least two major hang-ups remain. What projects would be included in a bill (every lawmaker will want a piece of the pie) and how to guarantee that Blagojevich will let the projects proceed. Without a guarantee, lawmakers will be reluctant to approve the plan.

--Gambling: The Senate approved gambling expansion last year to pay for a capital program. It has gone nowhere in the House.

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a key gaming negotiator, said gambling expansion – which could include more casinos, more slot machines at existing casinos and machines at horse racing tracks – is alive and well. The problem, in his estimation, is that there is no agreement on a capital bill.

“Some people take the position a gaming bill is holding up the capital bill,” Lang said. “I believe it is exactly the opposite.”

--Recall: The House approved a proposed amendment to the state Constitution allowing state officials to be recalled by voters – an amendment aimed mainly at Blagojevich. In the Senate, however, Trotter is the sponsor. He is a top lieutenant to Jones, who is an ally of Blagojevich.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to do this,” Trotter said. “It looks like an attack on one person. Where’s the fairness in that?”

Any proposed constitutional amendments must be approved by May 4 to get on the November ballot.

--Guns: The House last week killed a bill restricting handgun purchases to one per month. A bill to ban assault weapons will be called for a vote this week, said sponsor Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, is sponsoring a bill to allow Illinoisans to carry concealed weapons. It is stuck in the House Rules Committee, where nothing will happen to it unless Madigan agrees.

“I know better than to run around chasing my tail,” Schock said.

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.