After the Republicans lost complete control of the state legislature in the 1996 election they rushed through several bills the following January, before handing the House gavel back to the Democrats.
The state Constitution requires a three-fifths majority to pass any bills with immediate effective dates after May 31st. The original idea was to encourage on-time adjournments and prevent post-election lame duck General Assemblies from focusing on much more than veto overrides. But the clock automatically restarts on January 1st, when simple majority votes are again necessary to approve bills. The Republicans used that little-known constitutional loophole and passed a controversial legislative package with simple majority votes in 1997.
And now, rumors are flying that a riverboat gaming expansion, a tax hike for the Chicago Transit Authority and a public works bill are all possibilities for this coming Januarys two-day session.
The governor was in Rockford last week and said he was open to the possibility of putting a riverboat there. The guv also met briefly with Rockfords GOP state Sen. Dave Syverson, who said later that he was optimistic about a gaming bill emerging in January.
The governor has denied twice before that he has told legislators in private that he would support more gaming after they told reporters what he said, and theres no reason to suspect that he wont repeat himself here.
Still, the governors people have been floating the idea of a mega January for the past few weeks, so Syversons comments fit the pattern.
On the other hand, the governor has publicly hedged and flip-flopped so much on the gaming issue that theres no guarantee he wont deny saying that hes "open to limited expansion of gambling to help ease state budget woes," as the Rockford Register-Star put it. In the past, the governor has said the state shouldnt use easy money from new gaming revenues to avoid making hard budget decisions.
Meanwhile, CBS-2 Chicago is reporting that legislators will consider a bill to bail out the Chicago Transit Authority in January. The legislation would reportedly raise $300 million in new taxes by increasing the Regional Transportation Authoritys suburban sales tax rate from 0.25 to 1.0 percent. The TV station also reported that a $10 per year tax on parking spaces at suburban shopping centers is under consideration. The CTA is facing a financial shortfall and is threatening to cut services and raise fares. CBS-2 reported that the governor is not taking a position on the tax hike, even though a sales tax increase could easily be viewed as the sort of general tax increase that the governor has consistently ruled out since the 2002 election.
Some of the revenue generated by a gaming expansion would most likely be used to fund a new round of public works projects as well as the long list of the governors pet projects that he announced last year with much fanfare then had to abandon when he realized he didnt have any money to pay for them.
Most of this talk about a busy January seems to be coming from the governor and his Senate Democratic allies. House Speaker Michael Madigan has yet to sign off on anything, particularly a gaming expansion bill, and his spokesman has tried to dump cold water on much of the January frenzy speculation. Its probably safe to say that unless the governor publicly gets out front of the casino and CTA bills, its doubtful that Madigan will string out his Democratic members and let them vote for something the governor might not really support. Not to mention that the CTA idea faces stiff opposition from suburban and downstate Republicans, and will not be viewed kindly by non-city Democrats.
Then theres the governor himself. Gov. Blagojevich has proved that he can kill a bill when he wants to, but passing something big has eluded him since his first year in office. His style is to confront, not to conciliate a necessary skill in passing any major new initiatives, particularly anything so controversial as a tax hike and a gaming expansion bill. The amount of goodies hed have to give Republicans to pass that CTA tax hike would be beyond anything hes done to date. And the Senate Democratic leadership has never shown much of an interest in working with Republican members, making the CTA prospects that much more remote.
If Madigan gets on board, then maybe its a hot January. If not, all this talk is just that. Talk.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.