SPRINGFIELD -- Republican legislative leaders joined state budget talks for the first time Tuesday, but the results were the same as when the Democrats kept the party to themselves.




SPRINGFIELD -- Republican legislative leaders joined state budget talks for the first time Tuesday, but the results were the same as when the Democrats kept the party to themselves.


The roughly 90-minute meeting produced a lot of talk and little in the way of a solution to the impasse that has sent the General Assembly into overtime for the second time since 2004.


“I’d say we are far apart,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. “There was a lot of talking about where people are, what their positions are. It’s the first step in a fairly long journey.”


House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left the meeting saying that an electric-rate freeze for customers of Ameren and Commonwealth Edison has to be part of any budget agreement. Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, is against re-instituting the rate freeze that expired this year, but a bill is pending in the Senate to do so for three more years.


Some lawmakers and utility representatives have been meeting privately trying to hammer out some kind of rate-relief proposal that would avoid a freeze. Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, a key proponent of electric-rate relief, said Tuesday the talks are progressing and that he thought an acceptable agreement may be near.


House Democrats have backed a bill to roll back electric rates to 2006 levels, freeze them for one year and impose a tax on electric-generation plants. Madigan said a final agreement need not include everything in the bill, but that it is “a good place to begin.”


Madigan would not put a dollar amount on what he believes is acceptable rate relief.


“There’s got to be significant, significant reductions, rollbacks,” he said.

Many lawmakers in both the House and Senate are insisting that the electric-rate issue be resolved before they will vote for a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. At the pace budget talks are proceeding, there should be no rush.


Madigan reiterated that the House has approved a budget that increases state spending about 3 percent. A parliamentary move kept the Senate from considering the bill until the electric-rate issue is resolved.


However, Jones said Senate Democrats aren’t interested in the House Democratic plan because it underfunds key state services such as Medicaid.


“It’s not really a good budget. It’s a (starting point),” Jones said.


Cross said the House Democratic plan is flawed because it has a $1 billion hole built into it. He and Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson of Greenville both favor a smaller budget that limits increases for education and health care and does not rely on tax hikes to pay for more services.


Watson said Gov. Rod Blagojevich again brought up his universal health plan at Tuesday’s meeting, even though Democrats overwhelmingly rejected the gross-receipts tax that was intended to pay for it.


“He’s still hung up on his health-care proposals, and I don’t know why in the world he would be still talking about that in light of the fact that his own party shot it down,” Watson said.


Republicans are at the table now because the General Assembly missed its May 31 deadline to pass a budget. In the House, at least, it will now take Republican votes to meet the super-majority (60 percent) requirement to pass a budget.


Democrats have a super-majority in the Senate, although they are divided on what should be in a state budget and how to pay for it.


Blagojevich did not speak publicly after the meeting. His spokeswoman, Abby Ottenhoff, said the governor wants lawmakers to stay in session at least five days a week until a budget is passed.


“Everyone in America works five days a week and is expected to put in full-time work in order to complete their jobs,” Ottenhoff said. “We think it is important for lawmakers to be here five days a week as well.”


In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley said Tuesday it is “embarrassing” that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office and still couldn’t agree on a budget before the deadline.


“It is embarrassing, but like anything else, if you get it done, everybody will forget about the embarrassment,” Daley said.


Dana Heupel of the State Capitol Bureau and Mike Ramsey of GateHouse News Service in Chicago contributed to this report. Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or doug.finke@sj-r.com.