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00000179-2419-d250-a579-e41d38d30000Illinois Lawmakers provides in-depth coverage and analysis of the General Assembly by veteran Statehouse reporters, news features, and interviews with leading lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.Illinois Lawmakers is broadcast during the spring session of the Illinois General Assembly and fall veto session. The series also provides live coverage and legislative reaction to the Governor’s State of the State and Budget Message speeches.Illinois Lawmakers is produced in partnership by WSIU-TV Carbondale, WTVP-TV Peoria, and Illinois Public Media, Urbana. Jak Tichenor of WSIU-TV joined the series as Statehouse Correspondent in 1991 and became the series host in 2005.Stream past episodes with WUIS reporters below or watch new episodes on your PBS station.

State of the State: Distrust and Lack of Communication in Springfield Spoil Opportunities Statewide

Bethany Jaeger
WUIS/Illinois Issues



The longest overtime session in Illinois history is expected to roll right into the annual fall session, which is set to start October 2. Plenty of issues were left open for the legislature to debate in those six scheduled days, but compromise hasn't been the governor's and the legislature's strong suit this year.

Ten months ago, when the spring session started, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones Jr. told lawmakers to prepare to make hard decisions. This was the year to hone in on the long-term challengeof how to fund education, transportation, public employee pensions and retiree health benefits. 

But those fundamental issues got overshadowed by a more immediate budget debate between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the General Assembly. The governor was determined to expand subsidized health care for adults, but the legislature denied multiple versions of his plan because they rejected the business taxes he wanted to levy to pay for it.

Months of wrangling ensued, and a host of legislative issues got tangled in the stalemate. The philosophical disagreement about whether to generate more revenue to cover increased spending prevented legislative action on two major measures, one that would reform the way Illinois pays for education and one that would release money for road and school construction projects and Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals.

Even if lawmakers and their leaders had agreed on a way to generate new revenue, they wanted to avoid giving the governor a new bundle of money that he could shift from legislative priorities to his own.

That deep-rooted distrust continues to undermine the session that's become an endless game of tetherball. Momentum builds around major policy issues only to get tangled around a stubborn ideological pole, leaving players where they started. 

Opportunities continue to pass by. The issues won't go away, but lawmakers lost the impetus to reform the way Illinois funds public education and to finance a capital program for much-needed road and school construction.

Federal lawmakers warn that the continuous lack of cooperation could cripple the state's ability to compete for federal resources in the future.

Advocates for education funding reform will have to rebuild the campaign that began with gusto last January. The A+ Illinois coalition, which represents civic, labor, business, child advocacy and other community groups, campaigned for an increase in state income taxes and an expansion of state sales taxes. A "tax swap" was designed to reduce the burden on property taxes and provide more equitable funding for rich and poor school districts across the state.

The idea has been around for years but gained an edge this year from an unlikely source: the Chicago business community. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, for one, urged the state to increase its contribution to the cost of public education. Right now, the state only pays about a third of the total tab. 

To avoid a "financial implosion" outlined in a December 2006 report, the Civic Committee said Illinois could raise income taxes and broaden the sales tax "without jeopardizing its competitive status compared to other Midwestern or urban-industrial states." 

Although the effect of the tax reform is debatable, the tax swap proposal gained support from the politically influential Legislative Latino Caucus, teachers' unions and other education reform advocates. But the bill unraveled when it became clear not enough lawmakers would stick their necks out to vote for a tax increase that was destined for the governor's veto.

A+ Illinois said the governor and the General Assembly missed their chance to raise taxes without alienating voters, but there's still hope supporters of the tax swap will take their frustration to the polls in 2008. The group cites a January survey commissioned by the Chicago Urban League and Voices for Illinois Children on behalf of the coalition. Results show 66 percent of the 600 registered voters surveyed support the tax swap concept if it means equitable funding for schools.

"The good news is that voters have demonstrated a willingness to pay more in income or sales taxes to invest in education," campaign manager Mary Ellen Guest said in an August letter. "The bad news is that state leaders just squandered a golden opportunity to make school funding reform a reality this year." 

School superintendents hope they won't have to wait until 2008 for action on a capital plan to pay for school construction projects. They look to the fall session for lawmakers to finally advance a capital budget, which has fueled a prickly debate for months, even years.

The capital plan is particularly important to 24 school districts that have waited for state funding since 2001. Rochester Superintendent Thomas Bertrand said in a Statehouse news conference last month that his community outside of Springfield has committed more than $18 million in property taxes in the past two years to compensate for the delayed $10.2 million from the state. "If we start tomorrow, we can't build fast enough," he said.

A district in the Rock Island County community of Silvis is experiencing the opposite problem. The aging schools are losing students to Iowa. "We're really hurting, and we're losing to the competition," Superintendent Ray Bergles said at the same news conference. "People are moving to Iowa because people see the schools and compare them."

Rep. Lisa Dugan, a Bradley Democrat, joined the superintendents at the press conference and said the money is available, but the governor needs to set his priorities straight. "I think it's bureaucratic bull. I don't know that it's deliberate. The governor's doing a lot of things that I'm not quite sure why."

The money was approved in a supplemental budget bill, which, among other things, would have cleared the projects for the two dozen school districts. But the governor waited to sign the measure until the final hour before it would have become law anyway without his signature. His administration then told the districts they hadn't filed the necessary paperwork on time. 

Releasing the funds through a capital bill will require all four legislative caucuses to compromise on a way to pay for construction bonds.

House Republicans, who are needed to approve a capital plan in that chamber, favor only a limited expansion of gaming to generate enough money. But the governor and Senate President Emil Jones Jr. support a much larger package that would create as many as four new casinos.

If the "gaming for capital" plan fails during the fall session, few other ideas are on the table that would generate enough revenue to float the construction bonds by spring.

Frustration with the stalemate reaches all the way to Washington, D.C. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin and the state's congressional delegation wrote a letter last month urging state officials to compromise on a capital bill so the state wouldn't waste federal matching dollars earmarked for Illinois' transportation needs.

"The lack of a state capital bill to address infrastructure issues means that Illinois has not kept up with the growth in construction costs," Durbin said in the letter. "These infrastructure needs will not go away, and the longer we wait to fund them, the more expensive these projects will be."

Congress earmarked about $1.2 billion a year for Illinois' highways and mass transit projects. The state is missing out on another $50 million in federal earmarks for projects that aren't now part of the state's multiyear plan. The money won't go away, but it could be released a lot faster if the state approves a capital bill, says Mike Claffey, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

In the meantime, more than 1,500 bridges have structural ratings worse than the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in August, according to Durbin's letter. 

One out of every five miles of Illinois' highways are in bad shape, according to Linda Wheeler, who spent 28 years with the state transportation department and is now a consultant with the Transportation for Illinois Coalition. Wheeler adds that aging roads and increased traffic congestion will lead to economic disaster. 

"In so many ways the state program is really inadequate to serve the economy and the mobility concerns of people," she says.

The opportunity to tap into federal funds for hospitals also could be a victim of the state's "toxic environment" and the breakdown of communications, says Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat and sponsor of the hospital assessment program. Hospitals serving Medicaid and uninsured patients were slated to receive $1.2 billion in federal reimbursements, but that money also was delayed by a technicality when the governor waited 59 days to sign the supplemental budget bill. 

Constitutional officers cooperated to release half of the money this fall, but the damage may already be done.

"The delays resulting from the conflicts have not only put vulnerable hospitals and their patients at risk, but they have also poisoned the well for attempting another plan that will require federal approval when this one expires," Schoenberg says.

Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes says there's a lesson to be learned from this year's string of missed opportunities.

"Everybody has to realize that you're not going to have your way and get everything you want. In the end, the governor appears to have settled for less than $500 million in increased health care funding, assuming he can get it done legally. It does beg the question as to whether, in a less confrontational way and a more conciliatory way, he could have achieved that."

And there's a question whether he could still compromise to release the choke hold on education funding reform and road and school construction projects

Federal lawmakers warn that the continuous lack of cooperation could cripple the state's ability to compete for federal resources in the future.

Bethany Jaeger can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, October 2007

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