Governor Blagojevich makes a bad situation worse
UPDATE 4:57pm: I just got off the phone with Rebecca Rausch, spokewoman for Governor Blagojevich. She says that the governor does not know how much revenue the RTA will lose from giving free rides to seniors, but she did say that the governor believes this program will cost $19 million. Therefore, the money that transit agencies will get will not be the $494 million that the legislature passed in its original bill, but rather $475 million. When I asked Rausch if this meant that the transit agencies would now be receiving less money, she replied "That’s a really cynical way of looking at it." In fact, she said the governor believes that this is good for transit because if these bills don't pass then they'd be getting no money. Eventually, she did acknowledge that the governor's plan meant the new bill would give transit agencies "less new money than the original legislation included." So I guess cynicism is the order of the day no matter who you are.
I asked her why the governor waited until now to bring up his plan, and Rausch said that he had hoped that the GA would not pass the sales tax bill and would instead pass the bill that would divert a portion of gas taxes to transit funding. When it became clear that the sales tax bill would pass, the governor wanted to ensure that those would feel the greatest economic impact of a sales tax increase - seniors on a fixed income - would have it made up some other way. She also noted that the transit agencies and Rep. Hamos and Herndon both supported the governor's plan for free rides for seniors. I suppose I would be in favor of it too if it meant the alternative was looking like someone who hates grandmas.
UPDATE 5:17pm: This Crain's article says the plan will only cost $15 million. The quotes from Rep. Hamos don't exactly cream "support" as Rausch claims. But the chicago_el livejournal page (via Chicagoist commenters) links to a WBBM story that says the heads of the CTA and RTA do indeed support it and stood with the gov when he announced the plan.
Via the Trib, the governor says he will support a transit bill with a sales tax increase, but only if legislators approve his plan to give free bus and train rides to senior citizens on the CTA, Metra and Pace (this was that improving he was referring to apparently).
The governor's own press release (reprinted after the jump) says that "a senior who uses public transit twice a week could save $176 a year on CTA fares" and that 1.3 million seniors live in communities with public transit, though the release does not provide information about the number of seniors who do use it. Nor does it mention the economic impact his plan will have on the CTA's operating expenses.
And that's the real problem here: the CTA is in trouble - in part - because it lacks the funding to properly maintain its operating budget. By removing a source of revenue for that budget, the governor is putting the CTA in an even deeper hole out of which it will have to dig itself. Whether he knows how much of a loss of revenue this will mean for the CTA (as well was the RTA overall), whether the bill will now require more than the $494 million initially included or how else he plans to make up the difference aren't mentioned in the release. I'll update once I know more.
Even worse, Governor Blagojevich didn't demonstrate the testicular virility he claims to have by telling the bill's sponsor Rep. Julie Hamos and the other legislators that he would only approve a sales tax bill on the condition if they included free rides for seniors, prior to its passing today. I can only speculate as to why he'd want to wait until after the General Assembly passed the bill, but considering our governor's past history of grandstanding - and desire to look like the good-guy-populist-cowboy riding in to save the day - I suspect he wanted to force legislators between a rock and a hard place: either pass the bill with revisions or risk riling transit riders over governmental "inaction" yet again (and get the subset of take-it-to-the-ballot-box-seniors in that group angry as well).
Doing this at the eleventh hour squelches debate on an important issue. And the governor should be ashamed of himself.
Here's the release:
Gov. Blagojevich vows to act quickly on long-term transit solution to avert CTA doomsday
Will accept Hamos-version of solution passed by legislature, but will insert change to protect seniors from impact of .25% sales tax increase approved by lawmakers
SPRINGFIELD – Soon after both chambers of the General Assembly approved a long-term mass transit funding bill today, Governor Rod R. Blagojevich was joined by transit officials and state Rep. Julie Hamos as he announced his intention to act on the bill as soon as it is certified and sent to his desk. While the Governor has been clear in his opposition to increasing the sales tax to fund mass transit, he said today he will accept the approach passed by the General Assembly in Senate Bill 656 in order to avert devastating service cuts and fare increases, but will use his amendatory veto authority to make sure seniors citizens can use public transportation for free.
“I’ve said clearly and frequently that I don’t think raising the sales tax is the right way to help the CTA and other transit agencies. People already pay too much in taxes; I believe they should pay less, not more. Even though the increase in the bill passed by lawmakers is small, people will still feel an impact. Despite my public support for an alternative bill that would address the CTA’s long-term needs without increasing taxes, lawmakers did not send me that bill. In the spirit of compromise, and with a keen awareness of what is at stake for millions of transit riders if a long-term funding solution is not in place by January 20, I will act on the bill passed by the General Assembly as soon as it reaches my desk with one important improvement,” said Governor Blagojevich. “I’m particularly concerned about seniors who live on fixed incomes and who don’t have the ability to absorb a higher sales tax without making cuts in other areas. That’s why I will rewrite the bill to allow all senior citizens in Illinois to take public transportation for free.”
The Governor’s amendatory veto will require transit agencies statewide to allow senior citizens, aged 65 and older, to use main line and fixed route public transit service for free. A senior who uses public transportation twice a week could save $176 a year on CTA fares, $156 a year on Pace fares and $405 a year on Metra fares. There are approximately 1.3 million seniors living in communities across Illinois that have mass transit service.
SB 656 provides over $494 million in new, recurring funding for the Regional Transportation Authority, which includes the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace; and another $50 million for transit agencies in other parts of Illinois. With a long-term funding plan in place, the Chicago area transit agencies have said they will not cut services, raise fares or lay-off workers on January 20, as planned. The legislation also implements important pension and oversight reforms within the RTA.
As soon as the legislature sends SB 656 to the Governor, he will submit his amendatory veto to legislators for their approval.