Monday, June 06, 2011

Quinn calls for special session to keep construction rolling

By Jamey Dunn

Calling for a special legislative session, Gov. Pat Quinn said today that lawmakers must approve spending for capital projects or construction could begin to shut down as early as next week.

“[The capital bill] was the largest investment in the history of Illinois in our roads, our highways, our bridges, our schools, our water systems, our rail systems, our broadband deployment. It was a huge public works agenda and project, and it’s the law of Illinois,” Quinn said as a Chicago news conference today. “Unfortunately the legislature went home last week without passing legislation to fund this year — this coming [fiscal] year beginning July 1 — the money necessary to pay for these projects.”

Lawmakers adjourned the regular legislative session last week without passing a bill that would approve the spending for construction projects for the next fiscal year. Senate Democrats tried to force a vote on about $430 million in spending that they wanted to tack onto the House’s budget proposal. Instead of voting on the measure, House Speaker Michael Madigan called for the creation of a conference committee, a group of members from both chambers and both parties tasked to hash out differences when the Senate and House cannot agree on a piece of legislation. Senate President John Cullerton did not follow suit, and the Senate wrapped up regular the spring session without putting its own members on a conference committee.

Now Quinn says lawmakers failed to get the job done, and he plans to meet with the four legislative leaders to “promptly” schedule a specially session to avoid what he called a “job crisis.” Quinn said that if the funding is not approved, he would have to start the process of shutting down construction projects on June 17. “This is something that has to be done. This is not a matter that’s optional. This is mandatory. These men [working on construction projects], they have to work. And they don’t want to be told on the 17th of this month that Springfield didn’t work for them and, ‘You’re off the job.’”

According to the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, a full shutdown would put 31,000 people out of work and cost the state about $30 million initially and $3 million a day for as long as work is called off.

Some House members say there is no need for the construction projects to be shut down so quickly. They maintain that an extension of the state’s lapse period, the time the state has after the close of the fiscal year to continue paying off bills from that fiscal year, would allow ongoing construction projects to continue. “We’ve sold bonds and the money is there. … The bond proceeds are there. The projects will continue,” Spring Valley Democratic Rep. Frank Mautino, a House Democratic budgeting point man, said on the last day of regular session.

He added that the extension of the lapse period from August through December would allow contractors on existing projects to continue submitting bills past the end of this fiscal year, and the state can continue paying for ongoing work. “So now, all those projects that are ongoing can just continue without a re-appropriation. … So we don’t need to do that bill.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, echoed Mautino’s take on the issue. “The lapse period would allow the state to continue to pay bills and beyond that, we will continue to cooperate with the governor.” When asked if he thought lawmakers would return to the Statehouse next week, he repeated, “We’re cooperating with the governor.”

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that the House’s attempt to use lapse period spending to keep the capital projects going won’t fly. “You appropriate money for a certain period of time, and that’s the authorization to spend, and once that’s up that’s up. … You can’t engage in new spending after July 1 because it’s a new fiscal year, and you don’t have any statutory authority.”

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said she has asked her legal counsel to review the issue and determine how long she can continue to pay bills for capital projects. “My office will continue to pay state contractors for as long as legally possible, but ultimately, this question must be addressed by the General Assembly and governor. If that means calling an immediate special session, so be it. One thing is certain: Our families and businesses are already struggling and paying more than ever before to state government; they deserve better than to be subjected to a high-priced game of legislative chicken over the capital bill,” Topinka said in a written statement.

None of the legislative leaders would give specifics on when they might return for a special session. “It is our understanding that there is a bill in the Senate that would give the governor the authority to continue the capital program for the next fiscal year. We encourage the senators to pass that bill as soon as possible. Unfortunately, at the end of session last week, Senate Democrats tried to tack on an extra $400 million of extra spending, which was unacceptable in the House. We are always willing to discuss our options, but the clearest one at this point is for the Senate to pass [House Bill] 2189, without additional spending amendments, to the governor. This bill appropriates funds for the FY12 capital and road programs immediately. This important jobs creation bill should not be held hostage by additional requests for more spending in the budget,” Sarah Wojcicki, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Tom Cross, said in a written statement.

But Quinn today continued to back the Senate Democrats’ call for additional spending. “I think the General Assembly gets an incomplete when it comes to their budget. I don’t think they properly invested in important things like schools and other things that matter to everyday people.”

Redfield said, “[The issue at hand ] is obviously not the capital bill. It’s about the Senate Democrats and the governor wanting to appropriate additional dollars for education and human services.”

But adding more spending seems even less likely in a special session, when Republican votes would be needed to pass the appropriations for the capital bill. “They’ve already taken the tough votes. They’ve already voted to cut this stuff,” Redfield said.

He predicts there may be minor concessions on both sides, but that the dispute will instead likely be pushed off into the fall veto session, when there will likely be a clearer picture of how much money lawmakers have to work with. “This is a lot easier to play out in the fall, where you know where you are on gaming, and you know where you are in revenue.”

Quinn has yet to act on a large gaming package passed in the last days of the session that could potentially bring in billions of dollars in new revenue. While he supports a casino in Chicago, he has said that he thinks the bill, which calls for five new casinos and slots at horse racing tracks, may be too large of an expansion.

Quinn also lost a large potential bargaining chip when he signed off on the new legislative districts for state lawmakers last Friday. When asked about the move today, he told reporters, “This isn’t a matter to bargain.”

Redfield said the short time frame Quinn is giving could make it very hard for lawmakers to do more than pass a bill that extends capital spending into the fall and possibly take up the issue later. He said Quinn’s oft-repeated tactic of threatening to cut off a popular state program or service to spur the legislature to action does not have a track record of success. “That’s just a recipe for disaster. Either because you’re always kind of wimping out, or you’re going to blow something up with horrendous consequences because this time you’re really serious and nobody thinks you are.”

He added, “We’ve got a mess that they are going to have to clean up somehow.”

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