Illinois lawmakers were headed to an overtime session Thursday, unable to reach agreement on a new state budget that has now become linked to electric rate relief.
By DOUG FINKE
and ADRIANA COLINDRES
STATE CAPITOL BUREAU
SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois lawmakers were headed to an overtime session Thursday, unable to reach agreement on a new state budget that has now become linked to electric rate relief.
Despite that, both the House and Senate were working late Thursday trying to pass as many bills as possible before the General Assembly’s midnight adjournment deadline. Beginning today (Friday), bills that take effect immediately need a three-fifths’ super-majority to pass, bringing House Republicans into negotiations over a budget and other issues.
A sure sign that overtime is imminent, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, issued a House schedule for the entire month of June, with lawmakers meeting three days a week until their work is finished.
The Senate was expected to vote Thursday night on a massive gambling expansion that will add three new casinos, including in Chicago, and let existing casinos expand their operations.
Negotiators also were working to reach a compromise on electric rate relief that emerged Thursday as a major sticking point in further budget talks. Downstate Democrats in both the House and Senate said they will not vote for any budget deal until customers of Commonwealth Edison and Ameren are given adequate relief from skyrocketing electric rates.
“We’ve taken a position for the last several months that we will not leave this chamber until rate relief is available to our constituents,” said Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville, leader of the 20 downstate House Democrats. “The best way to facilitate that is to make sure that no budget passes until rate relief has been resolved.”
“I think both chambers think the electric bill ought to be done first before the budget,” said Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton.
“We have some members in the Democratic caucus who are not going to vote on certain things unless there is a deal done,” acknowledged Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, one of the rate-relief negotiators.
Lawmakers and utility representatives talked throughout the day, but still had not reached an agreement on relief by early Thursday night. The last offer from ComEd and Ameren provided about $500 million worth of relief over three years.
The legislature is threatening to pass a bill that rolls back electric rates to 2006 levels and freezes them for three years if the utilities don’t agreed to additional rate relief. The House already approved such a bill, and the Senate could vote on it as early as today (Friday) if negotiations fail to produce a compromise.
“If we don’t get more than $500 million, the freeze bill is going to run,” Forby said.
The fight over electric rate relief essentially put on hold further negotiations on a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Holbrook, who voted for a House Democrat budget plan Wednesday, filed a motion Thursday to have the House reconsider what it did. The move essentially keeps the budget plan stalled in the House.
However, Senate Democrats weren’t likely to consider the House plan anyway.
“Clearly, no one on this side agrees with the budget we’ve heard about,” Clayborne said.
“It’s a starting point,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, a lead budget negotiator for the Senate Democrats. “We feel there should be more (spending) there because the people of Illinois deserve more.”
The House Democrat plan increases state spending by about $800 million, with roughly $400 million of that going to education. The money would come from natural revenue growth due to economic expansion and by ending $300 million worth of business tax breaks.
It does not provide money for Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s universal health-care plan and far less than the $1.5 billion education spending increase he sought.
Most other state spending would remain flat, meaning the House Democrats’ budget wouldn’t cover some mandatory increased expenses such raises in union contracts.
Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, acknowledged the budget is only a stop-gap, designed in part to keep state government running if Blagojevich and Madigan continue their stalemate through the summer over how much the budget should grow.
Mautino said the House Democrats’ budget could get state agencies at least past January before cash would start running low and lawmakers would have to approve additional spending. By that time, though, additional spending could be approved just with Democratic votes, again cutting Republicans out of the negotiations.
Although neither the House nor Senate appears willing to raise income or sales taxes, Trotter said more money can be raised through gambling and by ending additional business tax breaks beyond those approved in the House. That would allow for more money to be spent on education and health-care programs, though still less than Blagojevich wants.
“The governor started from the roof down, (Madigan) started from the floor up,” Trotter said. “We’re somewhere in the middle.”
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or email@example.com. Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.