The governor has said he wants billions more a year for a universal healthcare plan. Last week, a coalition of business and labor groups called on the state to put $5 billion a year into transportation for five years. The Regional Transportation Authority estimates it needs $57 billion over 30 years to maintain, enhance and expand transit services.
Also last week, state Sen. James Meeks and the teachers unions unveiled a modified version of the infamous Senate Bill 750, which will not only provide new education dollars and roll back property taxes, but will also pump $3 billion into the state's underfunded pension systems.
Also, businesses big and small are apoplectic over the rumors that Gov. Blagojevich will propose a multibillion dollar "gross receipts tax."
The tax would zap pretty much every transaction performed by businesses and provide billions of dollars (the business groups say maybe as much as $9 billion) a year for state coffers. At least one new coalition has been formed to fight it, and more are likely on the way.
Are we headed for the mother of all tax hikes?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
House Speaker Michael Madigan is still not communicating directly with Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Senate President Emil Jones and Blagojevich (and their staffs) are meeting regularly and appear to be preparing to shove the governor's and Jones' agenda down Madigan's throat, which won't go over well.
The governor's absolute top priority, as noted above, is an expensive healthcare package, while Sen. Jones' top spending item is education funding. Nobody knows yet where Madigan's priorities are, but he is very interested in pension funding.
As I've told you before, Madigan and Blagojevich aren't getting along at all. Jones and Madigan are also having lots of problems with their relationship. The battle developing between the three Democrats appears almost Romanesque - a fight to the end, rather than just your usual political spat. I say "almost" because Roman politicians often used real knives and swords and drew real blood. I doubt we'll ever get to that point here.
Madigan's initial reaction to the "gross receipts" tax rumor was not positive, insiders say, which could set up a major showdown - that is, if the business groups are correct and the governor goes through with the idea. Right now, we have no idea either way. Many of Madigan's most politically endangered incumbents were endorsed by big business groups last fall, and Madigan has positioned himself as their defender since then. For instance, he held up the minimum wage increase until some of their objections were addressed, and he gutted and then essentially killed off the 7 percent Cook County assessment cap, which business wanted dead.
And then there's the House Republicans. House GOP Leader Tom Cross will have to put votes on any proposal that includes longterm borrowing, like transportation projects, because those bills require a three-fifths vote. The Senate Republicans have been aced out of the process because Democratic Senate President Jones has more than a three-fifths majority in his chamber.
The bipartisan, multi-regional pressure to pass a capital bill this year is so intense, as amply illustrated by the diverse business-labor coalition behind it, that Cross may be able to withhold his caucus' votes and force a more "reasonable" revenue enhancement and benefits package for the governor's healthcare plan and Jones' education ideas.
Cross has already said that he opposes a tax hike, but said he is open to gaming expansion. Almost no matter what they do, there's pretty much no way that gaming money can fund all of the governor's and Jones' priorities, but it's a pretty good start.
And, finally, there are asset sales. The governor says he can get $10 billion if he puts the lottery on the auction block. There are those who say that he could be open to a tollway sale as well (Sen. Meeks, who negotiated the lottery sale for education funding, has often hinted as much), even though the governor said repeatedly during the campaign that he wasn't for that particular idea. In the end, gaming and asset sales may be a way to avoid a drastic tax increase and may look a whole lot more inviting come May than they do now.
What this all adds up to is potentially the most interesting legislative session since Jim Thompson was in charge. Or, if the Democrats can't get their acts together, the mother of all duds.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com