Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Senate move for capital investment moves the debate forward

Senate Bill 668 (here) is a billion dollar bond program for school construction.

Last week, the Senate Democrats brought the bill, along with Senate Bill 665 (here), a $2.7 billion transportation bond bill, to the floor for a vote. Because the state constitution requires a three-fifths vote for putting the state deeper into debt, and Democrats only have 54% of the seats, Republicans need to vote for the bill as well. They did not, so the bills failed on a party-line vote.

Much of the debate, and much of the reporting on the debate, framed this as the Senate Republicans killing "the Governor's bill." Republican objections centered on the lack of any real negotiation between Governor Blagojevich and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, the lack of trust they have for Governor Blagojevich and finally, the lack of a revenue stream to finance the bonds.

I think that's not quite accurate, at least as it pertains to SB 668, the billion dollar school construction bond.

This was clearly not the Governor's bill, as the Senate Democrats chose to double the stakes and push for a billion dollar bond for school construction, not $500 million. One of Leader Watson's main points on the floor was the apparent absurdity of Governor Blagojevich's office scheduling a meeting for the day after the vote. I think that's a good sign that the bonding bill was the initiative of President Jones and the Senate Democrats, and not Governor Blagojevich. So it's a little unfair to rip into Blagojevich for not meeting with Leader Watson in time for the vote when the President pushed the bond forward to the floor.

The interesting part of the exercise was the apparent openness of several Senate Republicans to passing a capital bill. Just about every Republican began their statement with something along the lines of "I would like to vote for this, but...." Some attribute these statements as cynical window dressing to protect themselves from charges of obstructionism (remember that's what the federal GOP Senators called Tom Daschle?), but I choose to take electeds at their word. I think there's an opportunity to find a bipartisan consensus on a capital bill -- particularly the school construction bond, where, as Senator Miguel del Valle pointed out during debate, the state law creating the program strips out much of the Governor's ability to amend the rules governing the distribution of funds. Therefore, even if Republicans do not trust Governor Blagojevich, they should still be open to the school construction program, as it doesn't rely on trust.

Who can forge that consensus? I think the legislators have the chance to do that. The odd, persistent culture of deference to the Executive Branch in the General Assembly continues to shape the budget debate. It was a little weird that Governor Blagojevich dominated the Senate debate on the capital bill -- why didn't Leader Watson and the Republicans demand to negotiate with President Jones and the Senate Democrats in shaping what is, after all, a Senate Bill?

Especially given the re-election pressures that cause people to dramatically inflate the electoral consequences of passing or not passing a capital bill (really, how many swing voters will be moved in November based on whether school construction is funded?), it makes sense to me that the legislators work to find a consensus among themselves. Given that in any other year, April 11th would be just the beginning of talking about the shape of the budget, we've got plenty of time.

And I think there is absolutely zero fallout from 'missing the deadline' of April 7th to adjourn. The only deadline that matters is May 31st. Press spin that Democrats are 'failing to govern' because they didn't pass a budget seven weeks ahead of time is borderline ridiculous -- especially if one looks at the Republican-controlled Congress which is perpetually months late at passing the federal budget, and the press almost never frames that body as 'failing to govern'.

Senate Democrats and President Jones should be proud that they moved the debate about a much-needed capital program forward last week. I hope they continue to do so and take the initiative -- legislator to legislator -- at forging a bipartisan bill.


Anonymous said...

Construction funding for the state's public school system is not a bad priority. However, the question still remains as to how this will be funded.

I know you support an income tax increase, Dan, yet that does not seem to be in the discussion or likely this year.

What would the Jones - Senate plan cut in order to free up the revenue to begin the construction program?

Anonymous said...

Maybe revenue for the state in year 2005 will come in a little bit better than immediately prior years (due to more jobs and increase in wages - see below).


Jack Darin said...

Does the Senate capital plan include the environmental programs (brownfield cleanup, open space protection, river projects) included in the Gov's capital proposal a year ago?

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

The bill to increase the debt obligation of the state does not mention any particular cut to the budget, so no revenue source or cut is identified. However, I think that debate occurs in the final budget. I don't know if the Governor's proposals include environmental programs or not Jack.