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State budget plan leaves few happy
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/1/2008 12:08 AM | Updated: 6/2/2008 8:24 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - A $59.2 billion state spending plan that boosts education funding without raising state taxes cleared the General Assembly Saturday.

The deal paved the way for lawmakers to end their spring session and avert the expensive overtime that held them and the state budget captive for most of last summer.

Yet few left the Capitol happy.

A $34 billion construction-spending program remained stalled amid political ill will and distrust between House members and Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Senate approved three new casinos, more slot machines at existing casinos, slots at horse tracks including Arlington Park and leasing out the right to collect millions from those buying losing lottery tickets, all in order to come up with the cash needed to finance such a massive spending spree. But a House committee rejected a key component late Saturday, effectively killing the entire deal.

In the Senate, even suburban Republicans generally opposed to gambling voted for it, saying the potential projects meant more to them. For instance, the project list included an $8 million Belmont Avenue underpass in Downers Grove and $5.3 million widening of 22nd Street between Route 83 and Butterfield Road by the Oakbrook Center.

Both projects are in Elmhurst Republican state Sen. Dan Cronin's district.

"I have to weigh the virtue of these projects against the vice of this gaming," said Cronin. "And I think, after a serious, long and difficult deliberation, that on balance these projects are more important."

The long-term lottery lease cleared the 59-member Senate 43-8 and the gambling expansion passed 32-18. The construction spending plan was approved 51-1. The only senator voting "no" was Aurora Republican Chris Lauzen. He said it'd simply grown too big too fast.

"What we've done with this bill ... we've loaded it up with, I believe, unconscionable pork," Lauzen said. "Thirty years from now I'll be dead, you'll still be paying, my children will still be paying."

But the lottery, casino and construction plan was doomed in the House where Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, openly questioned the validity of the governor's word. Democrats questioned the wisdom of rushing through such a huge new program.

House Republicans accused Democrats of holding up billions in projects that'd create thousands of jobs purely out of political spite for the governor.

Blagojevich made a rare trip to the Illinois House to try to sway lawmakers, only to have state Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, give a speech reminding members of the governor's past broken promises.

"We'd be nuts to give a blank check," Franks said.

Other Democrats noted the House - with Republican support - voted two years ago to repeal riverboat gambling only to turn around and propose a huge expansion.

Blagojevich approached Madigan on the House floor and talked about shared values and told Madigan he'd call him. "Will you take it?" the governor asked.

Madigan laughed as he walked away.

Blagojevich expressed his frustration at the lack of a deal to reporters as he left the House chamber.

"The economy is slumping … we shouldn't be waiting, we should act now," Blagojevich said.

The apparent demise once again of a construction plan - it's been nine years since then-Gov. George Ryan managed to broker the last one - means lawmakers won't be able to head home for a summer of ribbon cuttings and grand project announcements leading up to the fall elections.

Even the things they did accomplish financially in recent days hang in limbo.

The education budget would increase nearly $515 million, raising the minimum amount spent on educating each child $225 to $5,959. The increase includes $148 million to pay for two dozen school construction projects waiting since 2002 for their promised state help.

To pay for all this no taxes are raised, but instead the Democrats who drafted it rely on an economic recovery pouring $1 billion more into state coffers and admit it's not balanced.

At first glance, there's $400 million more in spending than money. But a series of money making and saving proposals did not win full support. Without them, the budget deficit could soar past $1 billion.

Lawmakers expect it to ultimately be trimmed by Blagojevich's veto pen. Last year, he axed nearly $500 million worth of lawmakers' projects to cries that the cuts were politically motivated.

"You're going to have the governor be the adult?" said House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "Talk about failure. Talk about reckless behavior."