When the state legislature convenes soon for its fall veto session, action is likely to be taken around only three issues, according to State Rep. Daniel Biss, D-17th.
But they are three mightily important issues.
Biss said that bills regarding gaming in Illinois, electric rate review and ComEd’s proposed smart grid technology and revisiting the budget could be the basis for important votes in the month ahead.
“I wanted to convene this meeting and get as much feedback as possible about — well — the state of the world,” the congressman told about three dozen of his constituents Sunday at a town hall meeting at Devonshire Park in Skokie.
Biss’ district includes all or parts of Evanston, Glencoe, Glenview, Golf, Morton Grove, Northbrook, Northfield, Wilmette, and Winnetka as well as Skokie.
It’s a tough time for such a gathering considering the difficult issues confronting Illinois right now. That the meeting was also held on a mild Sunday afternoon and when the Bears were playing may have kept attendance down.
But Biss was candid — and mostly critical — about bills that he could be voting on in short time.
The idea of raising revenue through gaming expansion has been around for years, but a bill has never before made it this far. Although Biss voted against the bill, it passed both the House and the Senate without super-veto majorities.
Gov. Pat Quinn has been less than enthusiastic about the legislation, which was pulled by the Senate before it reached his desk. Biss said there is still maneuvering to see if Quinn can be persuaded to sign the bill or the bill can be tweaked to get the governor’s support.
“It’s a complicated and really, really big bill,” Biss said. “Part of the reason it passed quite frankly is that it’s got stuff in it for everybody across the state.”
Illinois currently has 10 gaming licenses. The bill calls for five new casinos across the state — one in Chicago — and it allows for slot machines to be installed at racetracks and behind security areas at O’Hare Airport.
“It just seems like an awful lot of gambling to me,” he said. “If we wind up voting on something that’s substantially similar to the bill we voted on last time, I will oppose it.”
Biss said he is uncomfortable with any use of gambling as a revenue generator because of the way revenue is distributed across society and the “extraordinary social costs it incurs.”
The fiscal cost to the government in the long-term in addressing social problems from gambling adds to his discomfort, he said. He characterized the current bill as “a long way” from something he could support.
That’s true also of a controversial bill that would help pay for ComEd’s investment in a smart grid, a major upgrade to the electric company’s infrastructure and technology system.
No one disputes that smart grid technology could benefit consumers, Biss said, but how to pay for it is another matter.
Biss said that smart-grid technology is aimed at advancing ComEd from a 19th century model where a giant power company sends electricity into the world hoping for the best to a more reliable 21st century model where electricity is better regulated and more cost efficient.
ComED believes the only way it can recoup an initial $2.6 billion investment in the new technology is with rate increases. The proposed bill rewrites the method in which the rate review process takes place, making it simpler for the electric company to count on increased revenue by locking in rate hikes.
“The whole accountability mechanism is gone,” Biss complained.
The legislation, he said, dramatically weakens the authority of the Illinois Commerce Commission and guarantees an extraordinarily high rate of return for ComEd.
“It seems like an outrageous windfall for a private corporation,” Biss said. “I just can’t be for that under any circumstances.”
Quinn vetoed the bill, but ComEd has promised to gather more support.
Biss acknowledged that the bill has some positive elements for Illinois consumers including a variety of green initiatives and more accountability regarding service. The latter is especially important in the wake of lengthy electric outages this year during heavy storms, he said.
Talk about revising the current budget during the veto session surfaced because of the governor’s concerns he cannot fulfill certain mandates. Quinn has threatened to close state-operated facilities including some for disabled people.
Biss believes moving some disabled people from state facilities to community-based settings could be best both fiscally and for their care but only if done carefully and wisely.
He acknowledged the complexity of the issue and raised concerns about the “haphazard way” in which it’s being approached.
“If we’re going to close these institutions, we need to do it carefully, intelligently and with a plan that includes appropriate funding,” he said.
For more than an hour Sunday, the audience was also able to sound off on these and other issues.
Resident Raymond Pollak complained about the state increase in the income tax last year, which he maintained has helped drive business away. He said that Indiana has more attractive incentives to draw in business.
“It seems to me like the elephant in the room is that Illinois is not competitive,” he said. “Without a competitive business environment, all the things you describe based on a lack of revenue are just going to get worse.”
Others, however, said that Illinois maintains advantages over other Midwestern states including Indiana in drawing in businesses.
“We have to be very careful in a bad economic downturn in coming up with systemic changes,” said resident Seymour Schwartz. “The economy is very fluid and it’s going to change (looking at) historical data over time.”
Schwartz said there will be a time when the economy improves significantly even if it isn’t for several years.
“We might still be stuck with some systematic changes when we were feeling very depressed in many ways,” he said.
One resident said she is especially concerned about young adults who come out of college with no jobs to be had. She pointed to the protests from young people currently occurring on Wall Street.
The economy and the rising poverty in Illinois and the country also served as the basis for discussion.
Biss was asked about issues ranging from the cost of higher education to district consolidation (which he supports) to pension reform.
He believes it’s possible to make environmental advances during a difficult economy, he also said.