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Another transit bailout plan runs off tracks
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/29/2007 12:19 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- State lawmakers rejected using suburban and Chicago gas sales to bailout the region's bus and train agencies Wednesday as a "doomsday" deadline for route cuts, fare hikes and layoffs draws ever closer.

With Republicans accusing Democrats of playing political games and many downstate lawmakers saying they aren't willing to help the Chicago region until there's something in it for them, the gas tax plan was soundly rejected 57-53. It needed 71 votes for approval.

It's the second failed run at a long-term bailout of the Chicago region's mass transportation agencies. The first involved higher sales taxes in the suburbs and a real estate transfer tax in the city. But it was rejected amid promises of a veto from Gov. Rod Blagojevich had it passed.

To avert two previous "doomsday" deadlines, Blagojevich found or borrowed millions to keep the buses and trains running. But transit officials warned the longer cuts are put off, the deeper they'll be. The next deadline comes in mid-January, although recent union concessions expire at the end of December.

The latest attempt to fix the transit budget would take the state's share of the sales tax on gasoline in the city and suburbs and instead of sending it to the state's main bank account to help fund everything from schools to prisons and health care statewide, the money would go to the transit agencies. The bailout would total $440 million and supporters -- including the governor -- had no immediate plan for how to fill that hole in the state's budget.

"It's not the dumbest bill I've seen since I've been here, but it's close," said state Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat.

Other lawmakers questioned the state's priorities, wondering why the CTA and RTA would suddenly get millions in aid when there are two dozen school districts that have been waiting five years for state construction help.

For Blagojevich it's another political defeat. Earlier Wednesday he appeared outside his Capitol office trying to put a positive spin on the state's lingering political gridlock, comparing his work on the mass transit bailout to the Bears recent overtime victory. That was when he apparently thought the plan would pass.

But this plan's fate was sealed even before the House voted. Had it passed, it would have gone to an Illinois Senate where opponents had rounded up enough votes to ensure it went nowhere unless tied to a statewide construction spending program worth billions and likely financed with gambling expansion.

So far there's no agreement on how that should work, but in response to the bailout rejection, Blagojevich late Wednesday ordered lawmakers into another special session today to address mass transit and construction spending.