Lawmakers think transit bail-out might not come

December 26, 2007 8:20:06 PM PST
The deadline is approaching for a funding bailout for mass transit in the Chicago area. Two of Illinois' top legislative leaders are raising concerns about whether a deal can be made in time.

January 20 is the day CTA, Metra and Pace will initiate their doomsday plan to cut services and raise fares if they don't get the money needed from Springfield to keep operating. Two Illinois lawmakers say they are not optimistic that the funding crisis can be solved when legislators go back to work next week.

Despite the sense of joy and the spirit of optimism that is suppose to permeate the holiday season, Illinois politics apparently brings out the Grinch and the Scrooge in lawmakers who have been mired in the feuds, the factionalism and the fecklessness that created and perpetuated this dysfunctional deadlock. As a result, the question Will there be a deal by January 20? produces a very disheartening answer for millions of transit riders and thousands of workers.

"At some level I'm afraid that we may have to see the system crash before the people in Springfield will behave like the grown ups the voters thought they were when they sent us to the capital city," said State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, (D) house majority leader.

"I don't to be like the Grinch or something like that, but it doesn't look good to be done in January," said State Sen. Rickey Hendon, (D) assistant majority leader.

The reason these legislatives leaders are pessimistic about a long-term transit bail-out any time soon is that neither of the plans on the table has enough support to pass in the house and the senate, and be signed by the governor, because one relies on a higher sales tax that Blagojevich is threatening to veto, even if it passes, which is highly unlikely with the widespread opposition from rank-and-filed lawmakers.

"I'm against the sales tax. It's a regressive tax, senior citizens have to pay it, the homeless, everybody we've just given food away to for Christmas will have to pay that tax," Hendon said.

The other transit plan leaves a gaping hole in the state budget by redirecting tax dollars that are now being collected on the sale of gasoline to bail out CTA, Metra and Pace, which is a non-starter with lawmakers outside the Chicago area.

"If I'm a downstater, I don't see why in the world I would vote to take $400 million that I'm now spending for schools, for mental health, for whatever it might be, and say, Oh we're just gonna kiss it goodbye and give it to the folks in the northeast part of the state," Currie said.

Representative Currie says it is up to the governor to come up with a transit plan that is popular enough to pass, and if he doesn't, that's a leadership failure.

"I don't think that Rod has given us a clear answer on the question of how do we fund mass transit in a way that means we get the votes we need in order to be able to do it?" said Currie.

"On several separate occasions, the house of representatives have attempted to pass legislation. So far unsuccessfully. The governor can't do this by himself," said Sheila Nix, deputy governor.

The solution, according to the governor and some of the legislative leaders, is to pass a massive expansion of gambling, to pay for a multi-billion dollar road, bridge and school repair program, which would probably free up enough Republican and downstate Democratic votes to pass one of the two transit bail-outs. But gambling and infrastructure are so complicated and controversial. that no one is predicting a deal any time soon. And without a deal on those two items it may also be impossible to pass a transit bill.