12/4/2006 3:28:00 PM Guest Column Allowing huge increases not an option
By Rep. ROGER EDDY For the Daily News
Week 2 of the fall veto session was much more active as far as important legislative proposals being debated and acted upon than was the first week. The 94th General Assembly has adjourned until Sunday, Jan. 7 at 3 p.m. The final scheduled days for the 94th General Assembly to meet are Jan. 7-9. On Jan. 10, members of the 95th General Assembly will take the oath of office. I make that distinction because the 94th General Assembly can still act on legislation during the three days we are scheduled to meet in January before the new General Assembly becomes active. Any legislation not acted upon during the veto session could be called for a vote during those three days in January. In fact, the 94th General Assembly could also be called into a special session any day up until the new General Assembly is sworn in. These facts are all important because a couple of pretty major issues were left unresolved.
Probably the most publicized of these unresolved issues is the controversy surrounding electric rate increases that are to take place Jan. 1. The current rate freeze on electric rates expires on Dec. 31. An attempt to pass an extension of the current rate for three years failed to get the required 71 votes in the House this past week. Speaker of the House Michael Madigan favors the three-year freeze. However, Senate President Emil Jones has publicly stated that he would not even call the three-year freeze legislation for a vote in the Senate. That means if we are counting on legislation that would totally freeze rates for three additional years we are counting on something that is not going to happen. The only logical alternative is that a suitable compromise be worked out that would allow a phase-in of the projected rate increases over a period of time. If we cannot come to a compromise, rates will rise as much as 55 percent in some areas of the state served by Ameren.
By now, most everyone has heard arguments from both sides related to the dangers of a total rate freeze. I am convinced that a total rate freeze is not the best answer. Some people call the predictions by utility companies of job layoffs, concerns about rolling blackouts, negative effects on service quality and possible bankruptcy all myths. While I do agree the utility companies have come on pretty strong with some of their multi-million dollar ad campaigns which predict unspeakable doom and gloom, I also believe some of the concerns are legitimate. The real work in this is to work through the hype from both sides and fashion a compromise that will be good, sound, public policy on this issue.
For the most part, any controversial issue like this that has hit the General Assembly during my short time as a state representative has been solved through hard work and compromise. In the end, if it is sound public policy, both sides of the argument have been heard, all concerns are part of the final product, every special interest has gone through the give and take process, and, while nobody is totally happy, the people are better served. That has not happened with this issue. While some legislation has been introduced which would phase in rates and begin to develop the necessary compromise, both the majority leader of the House and the Senate, as well as the governor, have not yet displayed the leadership necessary to solve this tough issue. The only hint of compromise was a bill passed out of the Senate which would phase in increases over a three-year period. That legislation is far from perfect, but it is a start and it did pass the Senate with 40 votes last week.
What makes this even more difficult is the appearance that House Speaker Madigan and Senate President Jones appear to have decided to use this issue to play "King of the Hill." Madigan says it will be a total freeze or nothing, and Jones wants to let the increase take place and let the market work. At this point, Jones has at least supported a phased-in increase, although as I mentioned before, that legislation needs work. It appears as if it is Madigan's move.
I will support a reasonable phase-in bill. I truly believe that is the best public policy. However, we cannot allow the huge increases that are predicted if no action is taken. That cannot be an option. Madigan, Jones and Blagojevich have been elected leaders in this state. Now is the time for them to demonstrate that they are worthy of those positions by showing leadership and resolving this problem through a reasonable compromise. There will be plenty of issues during the spring Session to play politics with and lots of time to engage in power struggles. This issue is not one to be toyed with. The people of Illinois deserve better leadership than that.
One item that there was compromise on this past week was the increase in minimum wage in Illinois. The increase will eventually take the Illinois rate to $8.25 on July 1, 2010. There is still a 50-cent reduction for workers under 18 at each interval increase and a "training wage" which can be 50 cents less than the minimum for 90 days in certain cases. I voted "no" on this increase. I truly believe any increase should have come at the federal level to allow Illinois to remain competitive in job retention and creation. Plus, many federal programs such as Head Start, which people rely on, are indexed to the federal minimum wage. If the Illinois minimum wage goes up so much more than the federal minimum, it could affect whether or not a single parent with one child would qualify for Head Start day-care services. It could also affect eligibility for other federal programs for low wage earners. If we wait for the federal increase, which is scheduled to be acted upon this spring, we could avoid any unintended consequences caused by the wide divergence between the Illinois rate and the federal rate.
I was disappointed that the governor's veto of SB 505 was overridden. That bill allows for a variance from state law which prohibits alcohol sales within 100 feet of schools. I think the governor was correct to veto this bill in order to keep the 100 foot distance intact. The purpose of this legislation was to allow two restaurants, one in Cicero and one in Chicago, to serve alcohol even though they are within 100 feet of a school. This is bad public policy. Illinois should not start making exceptions to this important state law. Both the House and the Senate overrode the veto.
Another piece of legislation that passed the House and stalled in the Senate was SB 716. This would allow county governments to impose up to a $2 per pack tax on cigarettes sold in the county. I voted against this potentially huge tax increase. The bill was not called in the Senate but could be called in early January.
I will keep you updated as to any special session news. Watch for a series of columns around the New Year outlining my spring legislative proposals. If you have comments, you can write me at: P.O. Box 125, Hutsonville, IL 62433 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read more on my web site: www.peopleforeddy.com.
Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville) represents the 109th District in the Illinois House of Representatives.