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Lawmakers OK transit bailout
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

The Illinois General Assembly today approved a bailout for Chicago area mass transit, which will likely avert fare hikes and route cuts.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/17/2008 2:06 PM | Updated: 1/18/2008 7:23 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- With only days to spare before a mass transit "doomsday" would have cut routes, raised fares and resulted in thousands of layoffs, state lawmakers approved a nearly half-billion-dollar bailout Thursday to keep the buses and trains running.

The deal will raise sales taxes in Cook and the suburban counties by a quarter percentage point, adding 25 cents to a $100 purchase. DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will counties also get another quarter-point increase. County officials can spend the money on transportation projects or public safety.

Also financing the bailout is a higher real estate transfer tax in Chicago, although that must still be approved by the city council.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich agreed to sign off on the sales tax increase despite a contrary campaign pledge, but only if lawmakers let seniors age 65 and older ride the buses and trains for free.

Blagojevich surprised lawmakers with this perk, unveiling it only after they'd sent the initial bailout deal to his desk last week. The governor's last-minute changes meant lawmakers had to be summoned back to the Capitol for another vote, costing taxpayers thousands in meal, mileage and motel money.

Contentious regional divides and poor political timing had cast uncertainty over whether the deal could be approved again.

Less than a day after the initial bailout was approved, Metra officials announced they were still going ahead with 10 percent fare hikes.

State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, slammed Metra for the hike and its timing.

"I didn't even make it home from Springfield to Waukegan," said Link, who urged Metra officials to reconsider or possibly face lawmakers' wrath in the future.

"What the General Assembly giveth, the General Assembly can taketh back," he warned.

Phil Pagano, Metra's executive director, said the fare increase should not have been a surprise.

"It may have been a surprise to him, but we've been consistent with what we have said to the public and our riders over the last several months," Pagano said.

Regionalism increasingly came into play as well.

Many outer suburban and downstate lawmakers withheld their support, trying to use their votes to leverage a statewide construction deal worth billions of dollars. They argued their areas got little out of this deal and feared local road, bridge and school needs will now fall to the backburner.

At times the debate grew tumultuous as downstate members bristled at being called "hicks" for their opposition.

Others called the senior perk a transparent political stunt on Blagojevich's part.

State Rep. Carolyn Krause, a Mount Prospect Republican, voted for the deal last week but switched and voted "no," saying local seniors, who now ride at half price, opposed the freebie.

"They thought that the discount they get is fair and reasonable now," Krause said.

An attempt to tie the freebie to income levels was not taken up Thursday by the Senate.

In the end, enough lawmakers said they either didn't want to be blamed for a mass transportation meltdown or feared being portrayed as anti-senior in an election year, and the deal was again narrowly approved.

"At the end of the day, getting all senior citizens free public transportation, which is now the law in Illinois, is a very good thing," Blagojevich said.

It needed 60 votes in the House and received 61. It needed 30 votes in the Senate and received 32. Of note, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat who supported the bailout, is recorded as not voting on the official Senate roll call. A spokeswoman said there was a glitch with his voting button and Jones did vote "yes."

DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom lobbied heavily for the deal and had pushed to let counties use their share of the higher sales taxes for public safety in addition to transportation. That's because he's had to impose layoffs and budget cuts in DuPage.

Three DuPage County Republicans -- John Millner, Kirk Dillard and Dan Cronin -- were the only GOP members in the Senate to support the bailout, helping give it enough votes to get to the governor's desk.

Chicago Democrat Rickey Hendon, the bailout's Senate sponsor, called them "brave Republicans."

How they voted

State lawmakers narrowly approved higher taxes in Chicago and the suburbs to bail out mass transit agencies, averting massive route cuts, fare hikes and thousands of layoffs planned for Jan. 20. The plan raises sales taxes in the suburbs and imposes a higher real estate transfer tax in Chicago.

The Illinois House approved the deal 61-47. It needed 60 votes.

Area lawmakers supporting the deal:

Linda Chapa-LaVia, Aurora Democrat; Paul Froehlich, Schaumburg Democrat; Sidney H. Mathias, Buffalo Grove Republican; Rosemary Mulligan, Des Plaines Republican; Elaine Nekritz, Northbrook Democrat; Kathleen A. Ryg, Vernon Hills Democrat; Eddie Washington, Waukegan Democrat

Area lawmakers opposing the deal:

Mark H. Beaubien Jr., Barrington Hills Republican; Robert A. "Bob" Biggins, Elmhurst Republican; Franco Coladipietro, Bloomingdale Republican; Sandy Cole, Grayslake Republican; Fred Crespo, Hoffman Estates Democrat; Tom Cross, Oswego Republican (House Republican leader); Joe Dunn, Naperville Republican; Jack D. Franks, Woodstock Democrat; Brent Hassert, Romeoville Republican; Carolyn H. Krause, Mount Prospect Republican; James H. "Jim" Meyer, Naperville Republican; Ruth Munson, Elgin Republican; Sandra M. Pihos, Glen Ellyn Republican; Randy Ramey, Carol Stream Republican; Dennis Reboletti, Elmhurst Republican; Angelo "Skip" Saviano, Elmwood Park Republican; Timothy L. Schmitz, Batavia Republican; Ed Sullivan Jr., Mundelein Republican; Michael Tryon, Crystal Lake Republican

Absent or not voting:

Suzanne "Suzie" Bassi, Rolling Meadows Republican; Mike Fortner, West Chicago Republican; Patricia Reid Lindner, Aurora Republican; JoAnn Osmond, Antioch Republican

The Illinois Senate approved the deal 32-19. It needed 30 votes.

Area lawmakers supporting the deal:

Dan Cronin, Elmhurst Republican; Kirk W. Dillard, Hinsdale Republican; Susan Garrett, Lake Forest Democrat; Don Harmon, Oak Park Democrat; Dan Kotowski, Park Ridge Democrat; Terry Link, Waukegan Democrat; John J. Millner, Carol Stream Republican; Michael Noland, Elgin Democrat; Arthur "AJ" Wilhelmi, Joliet Democrat

Area lawmakers opposing the deal:

Pamela J. Althoff, McHenry Republican; Michael Bond, Grayslake Democrat; Linda Holmes, Aurora Democrat; Randall M. Hultgren, Winfield Republican; Matt Murphy, Palatine Republican; Carole Pankau, Roselle Republican; William E. Peterson, Long Grove Republican

Absent or not voting:

Chris Lauzen, Aurora Republican

Source: Illinois House, Senate roll calls HB656