General Assembly OKs changes to transit plan

January 17, 2008 8:34:42 PM PST
The mass transit funding bill has been passed by both the Illinois house and the senate. So all it needs now is the governor's signature. This bill will avert service cuts and fare hikes for the CTA, Pace and Metra riders, but it's going to increase sales taxes as well as the real estate transfer tax.

The governor's earlier changes also mean that this bill will give senior citizens free rides on public transportation. And lawmakers are fuming about the way the governor added that to the bill.

The governor said all's well that ends well. But the reality is the mass transit funding bill and the sales tax hike that will support it is now law. The house, with just one vote to spare, and the senate, with just two votes to spare, accepted the governor's amendatory veto, which will call for seniors to ride for free.

"This is not about turning horse manure into ponies or lemons into lemonade but playing politics with people's lives, and it's shameful," said State Rep. John Fritchey, (D) Chicago.

"This was a transparent attempt by the governor of our state to pander to a group of voters for his own purposes," said State Rep. Lou Lang, (D) Skokie.

The governor took a pounding from legislators of both parties who called him a demagogue and a dictator who came up with a seniors ride free plan to divert attention from his broken pledge not to raise taxes. But in the end, both the house and senate voted narrowly to accept the governor's amendatory veto, which means the doomsday is averted.

"It ends a difficult time in northeastern Illinois, and hopes up an exciting new one, and we appreciate the work that went into this," said Ron Huberman, CTA president.

"This has been a long and tedious situation and we are elated we can put it to bed," said Rick Harris, Amalgamated Transit Union.

With the change made by the governor, CTA, Metra and Pace officials will start vetting out the seniors ride free plan, which would begin in two months.

"I think we can build on our existing and make that work quite well. And we can get it in place in 60 days," said Steve Schlickman, RTA executive director.

Governor Blagojevich said he is delighted with the result, but he made it fairly clear that he will not accept any new legislation that would redesign which seniors could ride free based on their income level. The house did pass that idea by an overwhelming margin Thursday. But the senate didn't call it, and the governor won't go for it.

"At the end of the day, giving all senior citizens free transportation, which is law in Illinois, is historic, meaningful and improves the quality of life for a lot of senior citizens in Illinois," said Blagojevich.

Given his opposition, it doesn't appear there will be any change in the governor's seniors ride for free plan. He said he is interested in expanding free rides for with disabilities, but that would have to come in the new budget.

Thursday's measure passed 61-47 in the House and 32-19 in the Senate. It now becomes law without going back to the governor's desk.

There's still some work to be done to finalize all the funding in the new transit deal.

One hundred million dollars in revenue is supposed to come from a hike in the tax on Chicago real estate transfers.

The increase comes out to about $3 per $1,000 of the sales price. Mayor Daley says he's ready to get the tax passed by the city council.

"We'll have to work with council members. Let's be realistic you know, again like anything else, someone else has to do some heavy lifting," he said.

It hasn't been decided yet whether the real estate tax hike will be paid by buyers or sellers.