Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Construction bill gets day in court

By Jamey Dunn

As lawmakers mulled over the pressing issues of this legislative session, such as workers’ compensation reform and changes to the state employee pension system, the fate of what many call one of the biggest legislative victories in recent years was being debated just across the street.

The Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments today in Wirtz v. Quinn, a case that will decide the future of the state’s $31 billion capital construction program, signed into law in 2009.

An appellate court stuck down the legislation in January on the basis of the “single subject rule” of the Illinois Constitution. The rule requires that bills be confined to one subject to avoid log rolling — tying an unpopular issue to a popular one in an attempt to force its passage.

Rockwell Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team and Wirtz Beverage, a liquor distribution company, filed the lawsuit against the state in the summer of 2009. At the time, Wirtz said he took issue with the way the plan was rushed through the legislature. Wirtz also had a problem with the increased taxes on beer, wine and spirits that helped to fund the plan, saying that the increases on beverages with higher alcohol contents were unfairly larger than the increase on beer.

Assistant Attorney General Richard Huszagh argued on behalf of the state today that the legislation all fits under a single subject: “the capital program.” He said that the revenue sources, the spending and all other provisions in the bills are needed to make the plan work. “Chicago architect Dan Burnham famously once said, ‘Make no little plans.’ The plaintiffs' approach to the single subject clause appears to be the opposite, that the General Assembly can only make little plans,” he told justices.

Sam Vinson, Wirtz’s lawyer, said the fact that the law diverts into general spending some of the money brought in from the increased taxes meant to fund capital projects is one many details in the law that are not all about construction.

However, Huszagh said the provision was needed after lawmakers put a stop to diversions from the road fund, which is meant to pay for road construction projects but has been tapped for operating costs in recent years. “If they’re going to try and secure these revenue sources for the road fund by terminating the diversions elsewhere, those operations elsewhere didn’t stop. So they needed to find some other way of covering that.”

Vinson said that since the spending bill would not take effect unless the legislature passed and the governor approved the controversial revenue bill — which contained sales tax increases on a number of items, as well as a plan to legalize video poker in bars and restaurants throughout the state — lawmakers who wanted construction in their districts had no choice but to vote for both. “It put the governor in a position where he essentially was stripped of his veto powers,” Vinson said before the court. “If you’re in a position where the only way you can get your project is to vote for the package, that defines successful log rolling.”

The state argued that the two bills go hand in hand. “It’s common sense. You can’t spend the money unless you have it.  … The appropriations weren’t going to go anywhere if the legislature didn’t pass the revenues,” Huszagh said. Some lawmakers did vote for the spending bill while casting a vote against the revenue sources. While they were roundly criticized by those who supported both parts of the plan, their districts’ projects were not written out of the spending.  Huszagh also said the higher liquor tax does fulfill the goal of the original taxing law, which was to get people to drink less alcohol. “Higher per-drink taxes at the wholesale level on stronger alcoholic beverages promotes the stated goal in the liquor control act of temperance. … This is within the legitimate realm of legislative judgment.”

Vinson argued that lawmakers could easily rework the legislation to ensure that the bills are fair and unconstitutional and asked the court not to allow the legislature to continue to circumvent proper procedure out of fear of killing a jobs program. “The most disastrous thing is not that a particular program be delayed, and it can certainly be recovered by the legislature repassing the thing with curative legislation overnight. … Probably if you were to rule from the bench today on these bills, you’d see legislation passed by Memorial Day that solved most of these problems.”

He added: “Convenience isn’t the best way to run a legislature or to run government or to run a society. Constitutions are.”

The Supreme Court is expected to release opinions on May 19, June 3 and June 16 but has given no indication when it would rule on the Wirtz case.


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