House approves $1.1 billion road plan as session nears an end

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SPRINGFIELD-The Illinois House Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $1.1 billion road-and-bridge package stripped up of what the GOP characterized as pork as the spring legislative session neared a hectic end with several key issues still unresolved.

With two full days left until a scheduled Saturday legislative adjournment, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bid for county pension reform appears to have hit a snag in the Statehouse as has Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push to increase city phone tax.

And legislation ratifying the U.S. Equal Rights Amendment and authorizing a takeover of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum spun in place Thursday, leaving their prospects uncertain.

But a flurry of bills passed the House and Senate Thursday with perhaps the biggest being a $1.1 billion construction package to help smooth pothole-pocked roads across the state, damaged from last winter’s relentless snow and cold.

That plan passed the House by a 97-11 vote, with four members voting “present,” in a push sought by labor unions. That measure now heads to the Senate, which also has to vote on a budget Friday or Saturday. Separate legislation to fund the program is up for a House vote Friday.

“The bottom line, this is going to put people to work,” House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, the bill’s lead House sponsor, told colleagues. “Those people will pay taxes. Some of those taxes will come to the state of Illinois for spending by this legislature.”

The plan will be paid for, in part, through higher vehicle registration fees put in place in the late 1990s that were used to float construction bonds under former Gov. George Ryan. Some of those bonds have now been paid off by the state.

Led by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, Republicans forced the plan to be scaled back from a $1.6 billion package originally sought by House Democrats, arguing that the hundreds of millions of dollars that were stripped away could have been earmarked for no-strings-attached, election-year goodies.

“We won’t participate in a program that’ll possibly have this type of discretionary spending like we’ve seen in the past,” Durkin said.

Despite Madigan’s support, some House Democrats counted themselves as critics along with a half-dozen members of Durkin’s caucus.

Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, questioned the wisdom of voting to “authorize spending $1 billion on some unknown projects, and we’ll do it at an unknown rate.”

“This is the definintion of irresponsible,” Drury said.

Durkin and his caucus also were heavily factoring into problems for the Preckwinkle pension-reform plan that would hike retirement ages and reel in other retirement benefits for county employees. But unlike other pension packages that have won legislative approval, including for the state and city, the county plan would retain its compounding, annual cost-of-living increases for retirees, which is a key sticking point for the GOP.

“That’s what’s weighing down many of these pension programs throughout the state of Illinois, and we just didn’t feel this didn’t go far enough,” Durkin said in an interview. “There’s got to be a significant reforms within the COLA structure of any reform bill we are going to be asked to take a vote on.

“Right now, I can’t sell it to my caucus,” he said.  

On the mayor’s last-minute push for a 56-percent increase on the city telephone tax on cell phones and landlines to $3.90 per month – rather than simply extending the existing rate of $2.50-a-month, which is due to expire in July — Republicans were again opponents.

“When the surcharge was passed a few years back, it was done on the premise it would be done for security in the Olympics, which never came,” Durkin said. “But the surcharge didn’t go away, either, so I think some people still have a bad taste in their mouth over that….For the request to allow the City Council the authority to raise the surcharge to $3.90, it’s just going to be passed on to consumers. We’re not receptive to that.”

Meanwhile, a state budget for the 2015 fiscal year that starts in July still awaits final legislative approval. The Senate is expected to vote as early as Friday on pieces of a $38 billion spending package sent over from the House earlier this week.

A budget-implentation bill emerged in the House and is scheduled for a Friday morning hearing.

It contains provisions that call for the transfer of $15 million in funds from the state Historic Preservation Agency to a fund controlled by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. On Thursday, the House voted on a Madigan-drafted bill to separate the two entities.

The spending proposal also includes language that would block Gov. Pat Quinn from injecting himself into any renovations on the Capitol complex, which are directed by the Capitol architect and a board. Quinn last year put the brakes on more historic renovations at the statehouse after criticism arose over the expenditure of more than $670,000 on copper doors on the building’s west wing.

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