Special session ordered
Governor wants answer for Chicago’s mass transit problem
By MIKE RAMSEY
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Published Tuesday, November 20, 2007
CHICAGO — Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday ordered state lawmakers to Springfield next week to work on a financial bailout for Chicago-area mass transit, even though he said he may be able to single-handedly find more money to sustain commuter trains and buses.
Also, the Chicago Democrat defended his intent to ignore a legislative rules committee that rejected his plans to expand discounted health care for thousands of Illinois parents and guardians.
Blagojevich said he has called a special session on transit for Nov. 28, after lawmakers spend time with their families over Thanksgiving. He credited his administration for identifying stopgap money for the Chicago Transit Authority and its suburban counterparts, Metra and Pace, earlier this year. He said he may even be able to find more funds on his own but cautioned there are limits.
“My message to the General Assembly is very simple: Let’s get something done,” the governor said during a news conference at his Loop office. “I’m running out of options where I can unilaterally bail out the CTA and stave off what could become a terrible situation for riders.”
Blagojevich and legislative leaders have met privately to discuss mass transit and a capital construction program that the minority Republican Party has demanded in return. But the negotiations have been a bust, in part because of policy disagreements over how to raise the transit dollars. Blagojevich has promised to veto a proposed increase in the regional sales tax that is earmarked for the transit agencies and instead backs a plan that would tap into a portion of the state sales tax from gasoline purchases.
Also holding back progress on transit and capital has been the personality conflict between Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who favors the regional sales tax hike.
Representatives for two of the legislative leaders said Monday they had not seen the governor’s formal proclamation for the special session and offered little comment. But House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego said it’s worth having lawmakers take another stab at mass transit and a capital program.
“There’s no question we need to finalize both mass transit and capital,” said Cross, who advocates a “modest” transit-fare increase over the governor’s objections. “If (the special session) aids in the process, then I’m supportive of it.”
The capital construction projects linked to transit assistance would be financed through a gambling expansion in Illinois; leaders have not agreed on the scope beyond the creation of a Chicago land-based casino.
If new state dollars don’t arrive soon, the cash-strapped CTA has prepared a “doomsday” plan to cut service and raise fares in January. The measures would have political ramifications for Blagojevich and legislative leaders, who had all spring and summer to hammer out a solution. The governor called several special sessions earlier this year as he and lawmakers feuded over a state budget.
The Blagojevich administration has moved ahead with emergency plans to expand the state’s Family Care medical program, in defiance of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. JCAR last week rejected the measure, which would offer discounted medical care to nearly 150,000 adult Illinoisans through looser income restrictions.
Blagojevich on Monday said the rules committee, which comprises six Democrats and six Republicans, does not have constitutional power over his office.
“Where is it written that a handful of legislators — 12 of them — can tell the executive branch what it’s going to do when it comes to administering the executive branch?” the governor said.
“I’m a stickler and proponent of JCAR and the legislative process,” Cross, the House GOP leader, countered. “I respect (the governor’s) argument and advocacy for the executive branch. I’m also protective of the legislative branch. We have a different view on it.”