Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Warning: Rocky road still ahead

State parks and historic sites would stay open. Substance abuse prevention and treatment services would avoid losing $55 million in state funding and the same amount in federal funding. State funding for human services would return to the levels approved by the legislature in May. The same would apply to the constitutional officers, which could hire back employees already laid off. Mass transit districts would receive more than $36 million in reimbursements for having to provide free rides to seniors and people with disabilities. But there’s a big “if.”

That will happen if Gov. Rod Blagojevich signs a plan approved by both chambers. The House approved the budget restorations earlier this month, and the Senate followed suit on Tuesday. But there’s no telling how long this could take. The Senate could send the approved measures to the governor’s desk right away, or it could wait for whatever reason. And once the governor does get the measures, he still has 60 days to sign them into law, veto them completely or send them back to the legislature with changes. Given the timeline or lack thereof, it’s questionable whether state parks and historic sites will close in October and November as scheduled.

All agree that the ball is in the governor’s court.

Rep. Mark Beaubien, a Barrington Hills Republican and budget negotiator for his caucus, expressed a concern about Blagojevich's next move. “Now he has the ability to take the veto pen and play games and eliminate programs to try to make different people look bad.”

Brian Williamsen, a Blagojevich spokesman, said the governor’s office has to review all of the details and added that it’s too early to speculate on a timeline. Williamsen could not say whether the governor would delay closing parks and historic sites if the House and Senate plan had potential to become law.

The House and Senate agreed to sweep unused money from the special state funds to collect about $221 million, which is included in SB 790. The package also would create a new fund, dubbed the “Budget Relief Fund,” so that the money could not be used for anything other than restoring the budget cuts spelled out in the spending bill, SB 1103.

The 15 votes against the fund sweeps were among Senate Republicans, who said there is no guarantee that the governor will sign the measure and, if he does, that he’ll release the money as intended.

The deal to accept the House’s version of the plan came only after much of the day was spent behind closed doors negotiating an even larger plan that would have increased funding for various programs, but the wish list ballooned out of control and eventually collapsed at the last minute. Literally at the same time, the Illinois Department of Revenue issued new information that revenue projections are coming in lower than anticipated. Income and sales tax revenues, as well as other tax revenues, are coming in below the levels on which this year’s budget was predicated. The difference: $200 million.

That slightly deflates the cushion that the governor has when distributing money throughout the fiscal year. But Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator for his caucus, said the $221 million in budget restorations that advanced to the governor’s desk Tuesday pay for themselves by transferring the same amount from special funds.

Sen. Donne Trotter, the Senate Democrats' budget negotiator, looked to the regularly scheduled fall session in November. “If there’s still an appetite to do more, then we can do more at that time.”

But the question of what the governor would do loomed like a black cloud. “There [are] no assurances — nothing that I can give — other than we know that there is a need, a necessity to get this done,” Trotter said. “And I think that we saw that, at least, in a rare occasion, the entire Senate that is present today voted for it. So we know at least what the legislators would like to see done. … It’s up to him of what he’s going to do otherwise.”

Which message are you sending?
Building on yesterday’s ethics reforms, the state Senate advanced a more sweeping measure that the governor tried but failed to advance through his executive powers. All GOP senators voted in support of the measure, five Democrats voted present and one Democrat voted against it.

Sen. Don Harmon, voted “present." The Oak Park Democrat sponsored yesterday’s successful pay-to-play ban, but he opposed the measure containing the governor’s proposals today because it sends the wrong message. He warned that approving a bill that almost everyone agrees is fatally flawed would undermine the behind-the-scenes negotiations already happening between both chambers and the governor’s office. He said it also could give the impression that the Senate is more interested in claiming that it advanced comprehensive ethics reforms than it is in ironing out the complicated and significant details with the House.

“Let’s negotiate this bill before we start throwing bombs across the building,” Harmon said before the Senate voted to approve the measure.

Fifty senators disagreed with Harmon and said approving the new reforms contained in SB 780 sends a different message: The Senate is ready to enact comprehensive reforms that could help regain the public’s trust during these troubling times. (That message is more likely to sound better on campaign literature landing in voters’ mailboxes from now until the November 4 elections.)

The legislation would enact more limits to political campaign contributions and shine more sunlight on who makes money off of whom. It would prohibit businesses with significant state contracts from donating to legislators and statewide political parties, prevent legislators from working in numerous government jobs as a second source of income, require more disclosure of legislators’ lobbying activities and reform the way the legislature enacts its own pay raises.

Through a news release, the governor applauded the Senate’s action. “This vote sends a message to the people that the tired tradition of double dipping, the fraudulent way pay raises are doled out and the deceitful way legislators who moonlight as attorneys can hide their clout-heavy client list should be a thing of the past.” His news release urged the House to continue the momentum and approve the more sweeping ethics reforms.

The Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based good government group, testified against the legislation last night, saying it was fatally flawed and constituted more “political rhetoric” during the election season. But Cindi Canary, director of the think tank, said she has been working with other legislators and the governor’s office for the past few weeks on the governor’s ethics language.

The Senate president addressed the whole chamber but, at more than one point, seemed to speak directly to Harmon and Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat who also voted “present.” (In the Illinois legislature, a “present” vote is intended to demonstrate opposition a flawed bill but support of the concept.) Both Harmon and Silverstein also happen to be among the names floating around as contestants to be the next Senate president when Jones’ term ends in January.

Jones said senators who oppose SB 780 want to either protect someone else or preserve their fundraising abilities so they can run for higher office. Silverstein later said that Jones’ comments are part of a political game and won’t hurt other negotiations. “But enough is enough,” he said. “You have to stand up for what you believe in.”

The only senator voting against the legislation was Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who often speaks out against Blagojevich. He repeated earlier sentiments that “the cancer of Illinois is the governor.” Jacobs made the point that the governor’s ethics legislation approved by the Senate today would not target the actions of convicted felon and political insider Tony Rezko, found guilty of 16 counts of federal corruption. It also wouldn’t have stopped another political insider and hefty campaign contributor, Ali Ata, from testifying that he donated to the governor’s campaign in exchange for a high-powered state job.

Sen. James DeLeo, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the governor's ethics bill, defended the measure and said it wouldn’t stop drug dealing or bank robbing, but it would improve the transparency of state government.


Terry,  11:03 PM  

Jimmy DeLeo and ethics now that is a contradiction.
If it wasn't so sad it would be funny.
Irony and tragedy Illinois style.

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