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State leaders talking, but no progress seen
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/27/2007 12:09 AM

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The politicians who run Illinois are talking to each other again but still agreeing on little when it comes to new roads, more casinos, broader health care coverage and preventing a mass transit "doomsday."

The governor and legislative leaders met for the first time in months Wednesday to hash out deals on a litany of issues facing residents - problems that have been on the agenda and without a solution for a year or longer.

But they each left the Chicago meeting without solid agreements on any of the top issues and apparently bridging none of the deeper divides. Still, they put on their best happy faces and insisted talking signals progress.

"This is a big step forward," said Gov. Rod Blagojevich, calling the closed-door meeting "perhaps the most constructive" all year.

Yet, on Blagojevich's $13 billion public works deal for roads, bridges and school construction, dubbed Illinois Works, state House leaders left the meeting noncommittal.

Speaker Michael Madigan said residents should clearly understand the projects would be paid for by a major expansion in casinos and slot machines. He plans to hold hearings on the proposal, which may do more to kill the plan than rally support for it.

"We will treat this just like we do everything else," said the Chicago Democrat, insisting he is keeping an open mind.

Blagojevich and Madigan remain divided on a number of issues. Madigan is vowing to push for overrides of the governor's state budget vetoes and changes to a Cook County property tax cap.

Moreover, Blagojevich is suing his fellow Chicago Democrat for failing to act on his calls earlier this summer for special House sessions. The two still had harsh words for each other on that topic Wednesday.

Madigan left the 2-hour-plus meeting after 45 minutes of debate, saying he had a "prior engagement."

Meanwhile, supporters of a sales tax hike to prevent drastic transit fare hikes and service cuts saw their plan take a step back with House Republican Leader Tom Cross coming out fully against it, and Senate President Emil Jones seeming to back off his support.

"I think you are going to start to see some significant push back" from residents on sales tax hikes, Cross said.

The Oswego lawmaker pointed out that Cook County officials are eyeing a 2 percentage point sales tax increase for that area as well.

Lawmakers have until Nov. 4 to approve a funding plan for the CTA, Pace and Metra. At that point, Pace and the CTA are planning major route cuts and fare hikes as high as $1 to cover a budget shortfall reaching over $200 million.

The lone agreement between the governor, Jones and Republican leaders seemed to center on adding a casino in Chicago to fund part of Illinois Works. Madigan has supported a Chicago casino before but didn't openly take that stand Wednesday.

Other ideas floated in the meeting for funding public works projects or transit included a cigarette tax hike and fee increases on driver's licenses and motor vehicle registration, said David Dring, Cross's spokesman.

The House and Senate are set to reconvene next week to debate the casino expansion plan, transit funding and the general state budget.