Last week, SBC, the giant Texas-based company that swallowed up Ameritech a few years back and is now run by Mayor Daley's brother, Bill Daley, rammed through legislation that will allow it to double the wholesale rates it can charge its competitors. SBC's Daley hired or recruited more than 50 Springfield lobbyists to make his case - an almost unparalleled lobbying effort.
It's a pretty hard-and-fast rule that whenever a utility company introduces legislation in Springfield, consumers are gonna get hosed. And last week was no exception. Consumer groups, the AARP, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn all blasted the legislation as a thinly veiled attempt to drive out competition and raise rates.
It was no coincidence that the SBC bill was scheduled for its first vote in the House on the same day that Mayor Daley was in Springfield to host a Taste of Chicago event. House Speaker Michael Madigan knew the all-powerful mayor's presence alone would pressure his members into voting for Mayor Daley's brother's bill. He was right.
The bill stalled briefly in the Senate on Thursday night when Republicans refused to put any votes on the measure. But the mega-company run by the mayor's brother managed to flip three Republicans the very next morning and zipped the bill to the governor's desk. Word is that Governor Blagojevich helped work the bill on behalf of Bill Daley - which puts him in the interesting position of supporting a measure that his own lieutenant governor had slammed as a "consumer tax."
Almost nobody who voted for the bill thought it was a good idea. That's usually the case whenever a powerful utility company jams legislation through the General Assembly. Legislators know they shouldn't really be voting for the companies, but they do it anyway, regurgitating whatever bogus reasons the utilities feed them.
In this case, it was all about "fairness" and "jobs."
That's rich. SBC has been fined millions of dollars in the past few years for unfairly stifling competition, and now it claims that its competitors have an unfair advantage. Right. The company has laid off hundreds of Illinois workers in the past year despite mind-blowing profits, yet it managed to blame those job losses on its competitors.
The House and Senate passed several significant bills last week, but the SBC proposal dominated the process.
This week will be no different. The General Assembly will consider legislation that will allow Mayor Daley to expand O'Hare Airport. The bill requires all state agencies to cooperate with the effort, overrides local municipal vetoes, and forces all airport-related lawsuits into Cook County.
It's quite a package. But the mayor wants it, so it will almost undoubtedly pass, most likely with the help of many of the same lobbyists who pushed through the SBC bill. And, in the end, hizzoner's friends will make even more money on their airport contracts.
And next week, the legislature will take up Daley's request to allow Chicago's government to own a casino. Once again, the controversial Daley proposal will likely dominate the entire week. And, once again, it will probably pass after huge numbers of lobbyists, labor unions, and Democratic leaders muscle enough legislators to get the thing to the governor's desk.
Not everything the General Assembly does this year will directly benefit Chicago, of course. But the big stuff, the sexy bills that dominate agendas and headlines, will all be geared toward making sure Chicago is taken care of.
Jim Ryan might have been right that Chicago would control the agenda, but the city has been on the fringes of state power for almost three decades. A succession of Republican governors and presidents has too often shortchanged the city in favor of the suburbs.
Chicago definitely deserves a bite at the apple. Still, the growing worry in Springfield is that the city has decided it wants the whole tree.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).