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House OKs ComEd hikes, but Quinn veto possible

Updated: July 7, 2011 3:15PM

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers Monday sent Gov. Pat Quinn a slimmed-down spending plan, voted to increase electricity rates and approved a first-of-its-kind scholarship program for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Skipping Memorial Day cookouts, the General Assembly instead was hunkered down at the Capitol, where legislators also endorsed newly drawn congressional boundaries but bowed to union pressure and pulled the plug on an effort to force government workers to pay more toward their pensions.

The buzz of activity came as the Democratic-led House and Senate worked to beat a scheduled midnight Tuesday legislative adjournment, after which Republicans would suddenly be empowered to decide any leftover issues.

The most important action involved Senate passage of a House-drafted budget plan. The $59.1 billion spending package now before Quinn is $2.3 billion less than spending levels Quinn had recommended for 2012 back in February.

“This is a historic step the General Assembly took in cutting $2.3 billion from the introduced budget,” said Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge), a Senate Democrats’ budget point man. “We can live within the means that taxpayers have provided.”

Not all of the budget work is complete because the Senate voted to restore $431 million in cuts the House had made involving early-childhood programs, college scholarships for needy students and anti-violence programs, among other things. The House, which must sign off on those changes, is expected to take up the issue Tuesday.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued the Democrats’ spending plan represented a $1.15 billion increase over current spending levels, misleading voters who thought last January’s income-tax increase would right the state’s fiscal ship.

“The truth is in the numbers, spending is going up after a tax increase,” Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) said during Senate floor debate. “People expected spending cuts and fiscal austerity, and you’re not delivering.”

On another pocketbook issue, the Illinois House approved Commonwealth Edison’s bid to raise utility rates to invest in its power grid, though not with enough support to turn back a likely Quinn veto of the package.

Even though the legislation now moves to the Senate, the 67-47 House vote represented a victory for the governor and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who argued the legislation amounted to a “blank check” for the powerful utility company.

The utility needed to reach 71 votes in the House to reach the threshold necessary to override a veto by the governor. The failure to do so strengthens Quinn’s hand in brokering his own deal with ComEd.

“We believe it’s a positive development,” Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman said after the vote.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), the bill’s chief House sponsor, said the plan would lead to at least 2,000 new utility jobs and usher in both “cutting edge technology” and “outstanding reliability” to ComEd’s antiquated power grid.

Under his plan, the utility would be guaranteed 2.5-percent rate hikes during the next two years to help underwrite ComEd’s planned $1.5 billion modernization of its grid, which would include the installation of so-called “smart meters” in all homes and businesses.

But those price hikes, which were opposed by the attorney general, AARP Illinois and the Citizens Utility Board, proved to be a sticking point with some House members.

The measure “guarantees higher electric rates for our constituents, our seniors, our lower-income people, single moms, at a time when people are sitting at their kitchen tables trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” said Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago).

The House also took action Monday on legislation sought by immigration advocates, passing a state version of the DREAM act Thursday in a vote hailed by immigration-rights advocates as ground breaking.

By a 61-53 vote, the House approved and sent to Quinn legislation to set up a state fund that would route privately funded college scholarships to as many as 95,000 children of undocumented immigrants.

The measure, also pushed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cardinal Francis George, would allow undocumented immigrants ages 18 to 29 with taxpayer-identification cards to invest in the state’s Bright Start and College Illinois programs.

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Illinois House is truly historic,” said Lawrence Benito, deputy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which spearheaded passage of the bill. “This vote is a victory for our state and an important step forward in recognizing the contributions of immigrants.”

Quinn indicated his intention to sign the bill, which would not expend any state tax dollars. Despite that fact, opponents on the House floor feared that possibility.

“A lot of people feel they shouldn’t be spending their tax dollars for people who aren’t citizens or people who are trying to become citizens,” said Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley), who voted against the measure.

On other legislative fronts, the House sent the Senate a Democratic-crafted congressional map that redrew boundaries for the 18 members of Congress whom Illinois will elect next year. The measure passed 63-54 with one dissenting Democrat, state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo).

“It seemed to me to be blatantly gerrymandered, and I didn’t want any part of it. You look at how these districts were drawn, and they were drawn to protect incumbents in both parties,” Franks said. “It was just pure power politics. I don’t know who cut the deals in the back room.”

Finally, Illinois’ public-employee unions secured a major springtime victory after House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) abruptly pulled the plug on legislation forcing government workers to pay more for their pensions.

Madigan (D-Chicago) and Cross (R-Oswego) faced an almost unheard-of legislative setback, succumbing to a dizzying letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to rank-and-file lawmakers by more than a half-dozen unions.

After passing out of a House committee last week, their legislative package drew support from no more than 45 House members when 60 votes were needed to pass a bill, union sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Thanks to the most potent grassroots lobbying campaign ever waged, we have blocked passage of a measure backed by leaders of both political parties and the biggest corporations in the state of Illinois,” Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a prepared statement.

Madigan and Cross issued a joint statement with Tyrone Fahner, the head of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, in announcing the pension-reform package was dead for the spring.

“Our goal is to enact reforms to our pension systems that provide a long-term solution for both those who are members of the pension systems and those who fund them,” their statement said.

“We will convene meetings over the summer to address the issues and concerns that have been raised and work toward a solution in this year’s fall veto session,” they said.

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