Many lawmakers see another special session as waste of time

Ryan Keith

Illinois lawmakers are headed back to the Capitol this week, and many are grumbling about another summer special session they see as a waste of time.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich decided to call them back to work Tuesday on education funding reform and Wednesday for the capital construction program — both ideas that have stalled after years of discussion.

Some lawmakers were already planning to be in town for Democrat and Republican festivities at the Illinois State Fair, but they don’t see much point to being at the Capitol. Even Senate Democrats, Blagojevich’s biggest legislative allies, aren’t excited about the latest maneuvering.

“My expectations are low at this point that anything will get done. If something does get done, I will be elated,” said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.

If nothing else, two more August days in session will stoke the heated battle between the governor and lawmakers.

He’s called for them to meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday and 5 p.m. Wednesday, both late starts to get much done on the two complex topics. The extra-late start Wednesday gives Democrats time to celebrate Governor’s Day at the state fair before getting to work on the governor’s prized capital program.

But Blagojevich said Friday that legislators should consider meeting several days a week after Labor Day to get both issues wrapped up if this week isn’t productive.

“If things are moving and things are happening, then, sure,” Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. “Both these issues are so important that you don’t want to put yourself in a box and say only two days.”

The education focus is the result of pressure on Blagojevich from black lawmakers, led by Sen. James Meeks, D-Chicago. They say Illinois’ school-funding system unfairly allows a large disparity between children from richer and poorer areas.

They want to end the heavy reliance on local property taxes for school funding and replace that with a more equitable source. Blagojevich wants legislators to discuss funding solutions but find another way to pay for them than an income or sales tax increase.

“Let’s see if they can pass what they’re interested in doing,” Blagojevich said Friday after he cut the ribbon at the state fair, adding he’s for any way to do education funding as long as it “doesn’t raise taxes on people.”

Lawmakers say that puts them in a tough spot.

“It’s like he called a special session, but he isn’t sure what to do,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield.

Guerrero noted lawmakers have repeatedly rejected the governor’s proposals, including gambling expansion, leasing the state lottery and even putting a new large tax on businesses.

“It was an offer, and it was a starting point,” Guerrero said. “It’s time for the General Assembly to also start talking about ideas and move to pass things.”

Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said lawmakers should use Tuesday’s session to consider eliminating the reliance on property taxes for school funding over the next few years.

“That will force us and the governor to come up with an alternative,” Bomke said.

Blagojevich also wants legislators to take up his revised $25 billion capital construction program, after they rejected his larger $34 billion plan. He’s dropped gambling expansion from the mix, which some lawmakers see as an improvement and hope leads to a breakthrough.

But others say political gamesmanship remains the governor’s goal as he tries to blame House Speaker Michael Madigan and his House Democrats for blocking the plan.

“There’s pressure that’s political, and there’s pressure that is real,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley.

Not on the special session agenda are two issues still hanging over lawmakers’ heads: budget cuts and pay raises.

Guerrero said lawmakers should take up restoring the $1.4 billion in budget cuts Blagojevich made last month only if they can pay for the restored spending. The House voted to restore about $480 million in cuts for substance abuse centers and other programs, but those died in the Senate.

“We put a lot of money back in the budget,” said Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield. “That’s what they ought to be taking up.”

Legislators and other top state officials are in line for hefty pay raises if the Senate doesn’t vote by Wednesday to reject the raises. Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, said she’s lobbying Senate leaders to bring the raise package up for a vote – because, if they do, she says, the raises will be rejected.

“Substance abuse shelters can’t get funding, but we’re going to give ourselves the biggest pay raise in history,” Garrett said. “It’s very clear and obvious we need to take a vote.”

Springfield State Journal-Register