Monday, July 23, 2007

One of those weeks

Monday’s events could set the tone for an action-packed but odd week at the Capitol. Strange bedfellows flew around the state to announce an electricity rate relief package that took months to unfold, and the governor spent the day in Chicago while busloads of Chicago ministers drove down to Springfield to rally and pray outside of his Statehouse office, as well as the House and the Senate.

First, the strange bedfellows of Senate President Emil Jones Jr., House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan flew around the state Monday announcing a long-awaited deal to relieve electricity rates for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers. Details of the agreement are provided from the House Democrats’ Web site in this press release and this fact sheet. Highlights: In addition to one-time credits, customers’ bills would reflect between 40 percent and 70 percent off of the 2007 rates. The rates going forward would be set by the new Illinois Power Authority, which would scrap the type of auction that set this year’s rates and that was supposed to transition Illinois into a deregulated system. Legislation is expected to move soon.

Second, four busloads of ministers and education advocates tried to storm the Capitol to urge state lawmakers and the governor to increase education funding. When guards calmly told them they couldn’t get onto the floor of each chamber, the group knelt in prayer and then sang spiritual hymns as they walked to the next door. When they approached the governor’s office, they were again greeted by guards and then by the governor’s chief of staff, John Harris. Their momentum deflated when Harris told them the governor wasn’t even in the Capitol, that he was in Chicago signing the statewide smoking ban. The ministers were invited to a meeting with all legislative leaders and the governor in the Capitol Tuesday, but most of them returned to their busses.

Earlier, the ministers held a Statehouse press conference and said lawmakers have a “moral obligation” to increase education funding. They stressed they weren’t in town for anyone’s agenda other than the children’s and that they were in Springfield to urge the governor to stand by his promise to put more money into education. (Blagojevich and Jones proposed $1.5 billion for education.)

“We’ve had the governor to our churches on several occasions, singing, what’s his favorite song, ‘Precious Lord, take my hand,’” Rev. Roosevelt Watkins of Bethlehem Star Church in Chicago said. “I think that if there’s no budget, absolutely, he’ll get a different reception. Not only him, but we’ll have Emil Jones, who we have a lot of lines with. All of them, they all will get a different reception.”

But Rep. Arthur Turner, a Chicago Democrat, said the group is the first of many to stressing the need for more education funding, but they’re just starting to realize the complexity of weighing all the budgetary needs. “If you’ve got funding in the schools and the CTA busses aren’t running on a school day, you’re still no better off than you were before,” he said after speaking with the ministers.

Third, AFSCME Council 31, which represents about 40,000 state employees, sent a letter Friday urging the leaders and the governor to avoid a government shutdown, preferably with a 12-month budget or at least with another one-month budget.

Fourth, the governor signed the statewide smoking ban in Chicago Monday. It bans smoking in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, hospitals, nursing homes, sports arenas, casinos and other places January 1, 2008.

More action gets under way Tuesday.
Deanese Williams-Harris contributed to this report.


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