by Jamey Dunn
When lawmakers return to the Statehouse later this month for their fall veto session, they will have to decide — among other things — if they want to try to find ways to appease Gov. Pat Quinn, agree with his objections to several major pieces of legislation or override his vetoes and move ahead with plans that would change the landscape of two major industries in Illinois. Lawmakers also have to decide if they are willing to make budget changes Quinn says are needed to avoid the closure of seven state facilities and more than 1,900 layoffs.
When they wrapped up their regular session in the spring, among the bills they sent to Quinn was a budget that cut billions from the governor’s original proposal. Lawmakers also sent a massive gaming expansion package and legislation that proponents say could bring the state’s electrical grid into the future while also changing the way customers’ rates are set. Quinn says he does not approve of any of these plans in their entirety.
The governor has voiced concerns about Senate Bill 744 up and down the state. The measure would create five new casinos, including one owned by the city of Chicago. New Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing hard for the city casino, both publicly and reportedly in closed-door lobbying sessions with Quinn. The plan calls for slot machines at horse racing tracks, including slots at the track on the state fairgrounds in Springfield. Quinn opposes slots at the fair, which he says is a “family” place. He has called the bill “top heavy” and has raised concerns that too many new casinos would create a “cannibalization” of existing Illinois casinos’ revenues, which have declined in recent years. He says he is worried about the state’s ability to regulate such a large expansion.
The Illinois Gaming Board urged him not to sign the legislation, with board chairman Aaron Jaffe calling it a “bad bill.” Jaffe, a retired judge, told reporters in July: “There are too many loopholes in that bill. I’ve said it before and I’ll tell you again: It’s 409 pages of garbage.”
It seems Quinn has taken Jaffe’s warning to heart. He has been repeating it to the news media for months. “There are parts of that bill that are very important when it comes to ethics in government and ethics in business,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago. “There are bad guys out there, criminal elements — organized crime — that want to infiltrate. And we’re not going to let them do it.”
Rep. Lou Lang, a sponsor of the legislation, says he is willing to work with Quinn and says he is crafting a second bill that would make changes to the gaming plan. He and other supporters hope that a so-called trailer bill that includes some compromises would allow Quinn to sign SB 744. “It would be very tough to pass a new gaming bill or an amended gaming bill that makes substantial changes,” Lang says. However, he says Quinn will not share specifics about what he would like to see changed. “It’s difficult to draft a trailer bill when you don’t know what it is that the governor is interested in doing and not doing.” He warns that any big changes could pull supporters off the plan because their support may hinge on getting a casino or slot machines in their areas. “No one should expect that a trailer bill would have huge or draconian changes to the core of that bill,” Lang says. Lang and the bill’s other sponsor, Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, say they are not willing to eliminate slots at racetracks.
The horse racing industry was a major backer of the legislation, claiming that slots at tracks could save racing in Illinois. Former Gov. Jim Edgar lobbied Quinn to sign the bill on behalf of the state’s horsemen. He says racing jobs are leaving Illinois because other tracks are able to offer larger prizes for race winners. “As I told him, he can either save the industry or let the industry disappear on this bill,” Edgar says. “In harness [racing], we’ve lost a lot of our good drivers who’ve moved out of state, and a lot of the horsemen have moved out of the state. Thoroughbreds — we’re just not competitive either, compared to Indiana and some other states.”
Edgar says the reality is that the state needs the cash that new gambling licenses and taxes would bring in. “The state’s broke. We’re a deadbeat. We don’t pay our bills. You’ve got to do things you don’t usually want to do. I can understand his reservation about all this more gaming, but the state needs money. This, to me, is an alternative that I think you’ve got to do because I don’t think you’re going to get many more tax increases. It’s obvious we don’t have enough money as it is, even with the tax increase they passed.”
Edgar presents another potential compromise: scaling back a controversial plan to allow video poker in bars and restaurants throughout Illinois. Legalizing video poker was part of a revenue plan to support the state’s capital construction program approved in 2009. Quinn said he had reservations about legalizing video poker, but he signed the bill. The implementation of video poker has stalled, and no licenses have been issued to businesses seeking the machines.
“If you talk to him, it’s all about video poker, and that’s a bill he signed [two years ago], which was a terrible mistake,” Edgar says. He says if video poker could be scaled down, then the new gaming expansion could be much easier for the Gaming Board to manage. Local governments currently have the choice to opt out of legalizing video poker, but Quinn has proposed that instead, they vote to opt in. Edgar says this would likely cut down on the number of local governments that allow it in their area.
As of press time, Senate President John Cullerton was using a parliamentary procedure to avoid sending SB 744 to Quinn for fear of a veto. If Quinn vetoed the bill, supporters in the General Assembly would have to rally three-fifths majorities to override him. Cullerton says he plans to push a trailer bill that would give the Gaming Board more oversight and make the overall plan smaller, but he agrees that slots at racetracks are vital to the legislation. He says he hopes to send the original bill and a trailer bill to Quinn at roughly the same time. “The plan would be to have some finality to this gaming issue during veto session,” Lang says.
Lawmakers will consider another bill that Quinn is adamantly opposed to, Senate Bill 1652. The legislation would allow utility companies Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) and Ameren to increase customers’ rates up to 2.5 percent annually to pay for improvements to the state’s electrical grid, ranging from basic repairs to poles and lines to so-called smart grid technology that would allow utilities to prevent outages and customers to track their energy usage. The companies would be required to invest $3.2 billion in the grid over 10 years. ComEd would be required to create 2,000 jobs, and Ameren would have to create 450 jobs.
Opponents say the plan was written by utility lobbyists and see it as a way for the companies to lock in profits. Quinn — a longtime advocate for energy consumers and a founder of the watchdog group Citizens Utility Board — came out hard against the bill and ultimately vetoed it in mid-September. Doug Scott, chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, the agency that signs off on rate increases and which would oversee the utilities under the plan, says the bill strips the commission of too much oversight power. He says the rate increases can be spent on costs that have nothing to do with grid improvement. “It’s not just about smart grid, and it’s not just about infrastructure. All of the costs of the utility are built into the new procedure that’s set up. … It’s not just meters and poles and cables or even personnel. But it’s attorney fees, advertising, charitable contributions, pension bonuses for executives — everything.”
Sen. Mike Jacobs, a sponsor of SB 1652, says he hopes to tone down the charged debate, which led to a scuffle between Jacobs and Lebanon Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter on the Senate floor shortly after the bill passed. “I think what we will try to do is try to lower the political rhetoric and try to focus on what the bill does,” says Jacobs, a Democrat from East Moline.
He says the need for grid improvement is inevitable, and the recent blackouts in the northern Chicago suburbs illustrate that demand. “When you are dealing with an old electric grid that was designed under Thomas Edison in today’s smart world, you’re going to have that.” Jacobs and House sponsor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an Orland Park Democrat, say they are confident they can find the votes to override Quinn’s veto.
Recent allegations of lawmakers handing out scholarships to children of campaign donors or students who are not from their districts have helped to gather steam behind a renewed push to eliminate the legislative scholarship program. The legislature passed House Bill 1353, which would bar lawmakers from giving the waivers to family members. But Quinn issued an amendatory veto that would abolish the program entirely. One of the original bill’s sponsors supports Quinn’s veto. Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, wants to push for a vote to approve the change. “Literally in one day, the legislature in the fall veto session can abolish these scholarships.”
Other legislators argue that the program offers opportunities to students who may not otherwise have them, such as low-income and minority students. But Quinn says the scandal-ridden program is beyond reform. “You can’t put perfume on a skunk. This system has had too many problems for too many years, and it’s time to abolish the legislative scholarship program and go forward with a better program.”
Quinn used his veto pen to carve out more cuts in the budget. He eliminated funding for regional school superintendents, leaving them on the job without pay since the fiscal year began in July. The administrators handle a number of duties for the Illinois State Board of Education, including teacher certification, building inspections and training of new bus drivers. Quinn says his plan to shift the cost to local revenues will not emerge until the veto session.
The superintendents sued the state for their pay, but Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled that he did not have the power to force Quinn to cut the checks. The group is considering an appeal and has turned to lobbying lawmakers to either support a plan to pay them at the local level or override the governor’s veto. “Clearly, we must focus now on encouraging legislators to again stand with us and provide relief for this incredibly difficult situation as soon as possible,” Bob Daiber, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said in a written statement after the judge’s ruling.
Quinn also cut $276 million in funds used to reimburse hospitals for providing care to low-income patients. Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, says the cut is intended to bring hospitals to the table to negotiate a decrease in their Medicaid reimbursement rates.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, says that she and others are negotiating with hospitals to try to find savings in the state’s Medicaid system. However, she says the governor’s cut alone will not accomplish the rate decrease he seeks, and a change to the statute is needed. “We’re all scratching our heads wondering how the governor expects the health care infrastructure in this state to survive.”
Feigenholtz, who heads a House budgeting committee that deals with the hospitals, says lawmakers already delayed the cycle by cutting the money for reimbursement by $400 million.
Quinn says that the budget lawmakers sent him will not fully fund state agencies through the fiscal year. He says he will have to close several institutions and lay off 1,938 people to keep “core” services afloat. The governor urged lawmakers to approve all of his budget vetoes so money can be shifted and some of the closures can potentially be avoided. The facilities Quinn says he plans to shutter are Tinley Park Mental Health Center, Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford, Chester Mental Health Center, Jacksonville Developmental Center, Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon, Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln and Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro.
Some see Quinn’s announcement of the closures as a ploy to push for more spending by creating a crisis to spur lawmakers to action. Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy says it is “grossly misleading” to imply that shutting facilities and laying off thousands of workers are the only cuts that could be made. “There are other ways to do this. … You don’t necessarily need to focus primarily where he did.”
Lang predicts that lawmakers will have little desire to approve drastic changes to the budget they passed. “[House Speaker Michael] Madigan and [House Republican Leader Tom] Cross sat down and agreed that we are going to do the budget together,” Lang says. “I don’t think that there’s going to be a big rush in the House, be it leaders in either party, to go behind or above or around that budget.”
Proponents of reforms to the state’s pension system also have vowed to push the issue again this veto session after an attempt to change future benefits for current employees fell flat during the regular session. Cross, who sponsored the plan, says interested parties, such as business and labor groups, have met on the issue while the legislature was on break. However, he says he cannot predict a timeline for when a new plan might be presented to lawmakers. “We are spending the summer, or trying to spend the summer, working with groups and to see if we can find any common ground. I don’t know if we can find any common ground. … I’m hopeful we can continue to talk and come up with a decent plan, but time will tell on that.”
Illinois Issues, October 2011
Tinley Park Mental Health Center. The facility has a capacity of 75, a staff of 195 and an annual operating budget of about $20.1 million.
Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford. The facility has a capacity of 76, a staff of 150 and an annual operating budget of about $13.6 million.
Chester Mental Health Center. The facility has a capacity of 243, a staff of 464 and an annual operating budget of approximately $34.7 million.
Jacksonville Developmental Center. The facility has 196 residents, a staff of 420 and an annual operating budget of about $27.9 million
Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon. The facility has 91 residents, a staff of 163 and an annual operating budget of about $10.7 million.
Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. The facility has a population of 1,980, a staff of 357 and an annual operating budget of approximately $30.5 million.
Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. The facility has a population of 59, a staff of 101 and an annual operating budget of about $8.6 million.