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Lawmakers switch focus to electric rate increase

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SPRINGFIELD - With the campaign season in their rearview mirrors, Illinois lawmakers turn their attention this week to a controversial electric rate increase and an effort by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to raise the minimum wage.

The General Assembly is scheduled to gather on Tuesday for the first time since spring for the post-election fall veto session.

Lawmakers are expected to wrestle with a plan to block ComEd and Ameren from raising residential electric rates on Jan. 1. The rate freeze legislation is backed by Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

But Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, has been less than enthusiastic about the proposal, which became a key campaign issue in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 elections.

The House and Senate also will be asked to approve a $1-an-hour increase in the minimum wage, bringing it to $7.50 an hour. The governor made the increase a key part of his successful re-election campaign.

Also on tap is a plan to give millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to United Airlines, a Chicago-based company that has only recently emerged from bankruptcy.

Despite the high-profile desires of Blagojevich and lawmakers, however, the veto session could be remembered more as a logistical nightmare.

Ongoing construction in the Capitol building has forced the House and the Senate to meet in temporary quarters away from the Statehouse.

Senate leaders have chosen a cramped area in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library to gather for votes, while the House will meet in the Old State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln once served.

Both are several blocks from the Statehouse, forcing lawmakers either to brave the November weather on foot or take shuttle buses to the locations.

Some officials believe the hassle of meeting outside of the Capitol could put a damper on what happens during the veto session. Others say it is only a small inconvenience that will have historic impact.

"I'm looking forward to deliberating in the same chamber as Abraham Lincoln did," said state Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion.

Along with electric rates and the minimum wage, there are a number of other issues that may arise.

During the summer months, Blagojevich said he would lobby lawmakers to boost spending on a couple of his pet programs.

In July, for example, the governor said he wanted more money to expand his All Kids health insurance initiative. In June, he called for additional dollars for his program to reduce class sizes.

He also said lawmakers could act on his plan to sell or lease the lottery during the fall veto session, but that doesn't appear likely. Under that proposal, money raised by the sale of lease would go toward school funding.

For United Airlines, lawmakers will be asked to reduce the state fuel taxes charged to the airline. The move comes after Democratic leaders repeatedly rejected calls by Republicans to provide motorists with similar tax breaks on gasoline.

Although it appears unlikely to come up for a vote, another issue awaiting action is a road and school construction program.

State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said Republicans are ready to vote for such a program, but only if the governor identifies how it will be paid for.

"Is he willing to come forward and say, 'Here is my revenue stream'?" Bost asked.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said the problems that might be encountered by having the House meet in different quarters could lead to a limited amount of action.

The veto session will run Tuesday through Thursday this week and resume for three more days on Nov. 28.

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