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Chuck Sweeny: Litesa Wallace says a budget deal is ‘low on the totem pole’

Rockford Register Star

Saturday, June 17, 2017  |  Editorial  |  Chuck Sweeny

Budget--State (8) , Governor (44) Madigan, Michael--State House, 22 , Mayfield, Rita--State House, 60 , Syverson, Dave--State Senate, 35 , Wallace, Litesa--State House, 67

State Rep. Litesa Wallace, D-Rockford, is only in her second two-year term in Springfield, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have experience with the legislative process. Before she was appointed to the House in 2014, Wallace served as former Rep. Chuck Jefferson’s legislative aide.

When Jefferson unexpectedly resigned on July 1, 2014, she was appointed to fill his seat. In November that year, and again in 2016, Wallace was easily elected from the 67th district, which takes in most of Rockford. Until his death in 1993, Democrat “Zeke” Giorgi represented the district for 29 years. The district is still considered special to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, because Giorgi was one of his mentors along with his father and the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley.

Wallace visited the Editorial Board last week for an interview.

“We’re close to entering our third year without a budget” on July 1, Wallace said. “It is shocking to see how partisan the Legislature has become since I worked for Chuck Jefferson. In the past, legislators were able to work together to get things done.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn in 2014. Rauner faces a Senate and House both controlled by Democrats, who won’t pass a budget with spending reforms that Rauner calls pro-business and they call anti-union. Rauner won’t consider a budget that doesn’t have some of his reforms attached. Attempts to find a solution have failed repeatedly.

The only thing that keeps some services funded are federal consent decrees and court orders, Wallace said.

If nothing is passed by June 30, some things won’t be funded, though. State road projects might stop, and some schools might not open; Rauner said he will not sign a stopgap-funding bill as he did last year.

“Yes, he said no more stopgap bills, but I have heard that he will sign a stand-alone (K-12) education bill,” Wallace said.

But is there a realistic chance of a balanced budget passing?

“It’s kind of low on the totem pole to say that,” she said. Meanwhile, “people have lost homes, people have died, or have become more disabled, all of those things have started to happen” because state services have been curtailed.

“Take for example property tax measures. I have voted 14 times to freeze property taxes,” but the measures were not acceptable to the governor, she said. “He keeps changing the goal posts.”

Democrats have proposed a temporary property tax freeze; Rauner and Republicans want a permanent freeze.

The governor also wants term limits. Wallace is skeptical reasoning that if lawmakers’ terms are limited, institutional knowledge will pass from people elected by voters to professional career lobbyists “who don’t necessarily have voters’ interests at heart,” and to career staffers.

For instance, Wallace said that when she was first elected, “I frequently called Sen. Dave Syverson, who has been there a long time.” Syverson, a Republican from Rockford, was first elected in 1992 and is still there.

“He’d say, yes, he’d seen that happen before, or no, they’ve never done this before. Institutional knowledge is so important to understand how to get things done,” she said.

We then transitioned to gambling expansion, which has been talked about for two decades but has never happened. Does it have a chance of actually happening this year?

“The bill has probably moved more in this session than in the last few years,” said Wallace, who is a House cosponsor of the bill “to protect Rockford’s interests.” State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, is the lead sponsor. If passed and signed by Rauner it would create six new casino licenses including one for Rockford. If a Rockford casino were to be built, the local revenue would be split with 70 percent going to the city, 20 percent to Winnebago County and five percent each going to Loves Park and Machesney Park, Wallace said.

“I’m not comfortable with the county getting a share unless they also contribute to the (infrastructure) costs,” she said.

Wallace is skeptical of expanding gambling’s chances of ultimate success, though, considering that Illinois casino visits are trending down, as are profits.

“We may have missed the bubble,” Wallace said.

She has a point. According to a QC Online editorial posted March 10, “The Illinois Gaming Board’s 2016 annual report shows gross revenues have declined in recent years for all 10 of the state’s casinos. Statewide, gross receipts totaled $1.41 billion in 2016, down more than a half-billion dollars from the 2007 peak of $1.98 billion.”

Chuck Sweeny: csweeny@rrstar.com@chucksweeny