Home / Articles / Commentary / Politics - Rich Miller / Capital plan invalidated, now hinges on state Supreme Court
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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 08:15 am

Capital plan invalidated, now hinges on state Supreme Court

Billions of dollars worth of badly needed state construction projects on roads, bridges, schools and transit were abruptly halted last week when a state appellate court tossed out Illinois’ entire capital construction program and all its funding sources.

The state is appealing to the Illinois Supreme Court, but if the appellate court ruling is upheld, it’s probably not going to be easy to replace this thing.

About 21 House Republicans voted for the $31 billion capital plan’s controversial funding mechanisms - video poker, vehicle fees and tax hikes on candy and booze.

Except for video poker, those fee and tax hikes have gone almost completely unnoticed since the bill was passed in May of 2009. But with a brand new and tremendously unpopular income tax hike still burning white hot in the public’s gullet, and a whole bunch of “new conservatives” elected last November, re-approving the tax and fee hikes isn’t going to be a simple matter.

Indeed, the video poker component could be entirely out the window. The House Republicans pushed video poker in order to keep other tax and fee hikes to a minimum. But insiders in both parties shed serious doubt last week on whether that unpopular turkey could be passed again.

Newspaper editorial boards have universally panned the idea, which essentially legalized, regulated and taxed an industry that has been operating in the legal shadows for years. Dozens of municipalities and counties have already taken advantage of the local opt-out and banned the legalized machines. Chicago has not yet approved them because the votes aren’t there on the city council and Mayor Daley was never thrilled with the idea.

On paper, the funding sources for the capital plan could’ve passed both chambers without Republican votes. In reality, however, there was no way the majority Democrats would’ve advanced any of those ideas without help from the GOP.

The bipartisan rollcalls are why the public’s (and the media’s) hue and cry has been kept to an almost invisibly bare minimum. Nobody in power has been constantly reminding anybody about the tax and fee increases. No controversy, no news.

The same thing happened after the last income tax increase, by the way. Nobody lost their elections over that tax hike because both parties structured an agreement. That’s a big reason why House Speaker Michael Madigan demanded Republican votes for so long on the income tax hike bill, and a large reason why the Republicans refused to play ball. And ever since then, the Republicans have taken every chance they could to ding the Democrats for raising taxes. Coverage follows controversy, and the Republican talking points have received a ton of coverage.

So, unless the Democrats decide to go it mostly alone on yet another proposal that gets inside the voters’ pockets (not likely, especially since the GOP is sharing equally in the projects), the Republicans will have to put several votes on this thing. And if they do, they could seriously undercut their planned assault on Democrats over the income tax hike next year. Unlike last time, the public is far more likely to pay attention now and they won’t like it. Not to mention that the national Republican Party just took over the US House and made gains in the Senate on a platform of rolling back government spending, including on infrastructure.

The hope is that the Illinois Supreme Court will quickly stay and then overturn the appellate ruling. The operative word there would be “quickly.”  If the Supremes take their time, Illinois will miss the upcoming construction season.

There is reason to believe that the Supremes might overturn this decision. The appellate court ruled that the main bill violated the state Constitution’s “Single Subject” clause. The opinion zeroed in on the state’s defense that the legislation in question was about “revenue,” and therefore was unified.

But the bill isn’t necessarily about revenue alone. It’s about the capital construction program. That would be the “natural and logical connection to the single subject” which the court demanded and then ignored. Attorney General Lisa Madigan wisely pointed this out in a legal motion with the state’s high court last week.

The last thing Illinois needs right now is more drama, more gridlock and more roadblocks in the way of economic recovery. Hopefully, the powers that be can figure this thing out.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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