Lawmakers seeking permanent transit solutions

March 25, 2008 3:50:37 PM PDT
A mini-revolt is brewing in Springfield. It's being led by Illinois lawmakers tired of the endless battles between Governor Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders that have brought state government in the past to a virtual halt.

The rebels are taking matters into their own hands. They're drafting a multi-billion dollar infra-structure bill to repair roads, bridges, schools and mass transit in Illinois.

There hasn't been a major infrastructure repair plan in Illinois for a decade. And with schools, roads, bridges and transit equipment wearing down, this is now a top legislative priority. But with a dysfunctional political climate in Springfield symbolized by the governor's battles with virtually everyone, the suburban lawmaker who led the seemingly endless fight for a mass transit bailout plan last year is staging a mini-revolt - an end-run around the feuding political bosses in the hopes of actually passing something.

"It's time now for the members of the general assembly, Democrats and Republicans, representatives and senators, to take action to create a plan that's workable," said State Rep. Julie Hamos, (D) Evanston.

Hamos maneuvered a mass transit bailout plan through the Illinois general assembly after months of fighting between Governor Blagojevich, Speaker Mike Madigan and other legislative leaders nearly derailed it.

So this year with the state in desperate need of a multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan to repair bridges and roads, build schools and replace mass transit equipment. Hamos and a small group of lawmakers are working behind the scenes, far away from the political kingmakers, on a bottom-up plan that would be presented to the leaders instead of waiting for the leaders to agree on something.

"When we face political doomsday scenarios, that's holding up the solutions. Let's not let that happen for capital funding," said Brian Imus, Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

The repair roadmap under consideration would set aside eight to 13 billion dollars for infrastructure needs. The potential funding sources include raising drivers' license fees and activating the dormant 10th casino license. But they're also considering beefed-up collections of unpaid sales taxes and increasing the state income tax.

But most Republicans are vehemently opposed to that, including North Shore congressman Mark Kirk, who says the state could lose several billion federal construction dollars if Illinois doesn't come up with nearly $2 billion in matching funds.

"The governor has put forward an idea that does not raise taxes. If others have ideas we're eager to hear their thoughts on this. The most important thing is we don't let regional or partisan differences stand in the way of finally passing a capital bill," said Kirk, (R) Highwood.

The governor appointed former house speaker Dennis Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard to head an infrastructure task force. But Blagojevich wants to pay for the repairs by leasing most of the state lottery, not raising taxes or fees.

The governor wants to pay for an equally ambitious infrastructure plan by leasing most of the state lottery. But that plan is as unpopular in Springfield as Blagojevich himself. So he may have to accept another funding source. The governor is, however, taking some steps to calm the political waters by appointing former house speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, and former congressman Glenn Poshard, a Democrat who how runs Southern Illinois University to head an infrastructure task force that will at some point work with the legislative group led by Representative Hamos.

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