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Plan could give state $275M more for roads in 2013

SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Illinois could have $275 million more for road and bridge projects this year if lawmakers approve a Department of Transportation funding plan, according to a summary obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Transportation officials identified $400 million, mostly in extra federal and freed-up state money, to pump into the transit improvement program during the next five years. One lawmaker said the agency is pushing for immediate legislative approval so work can begin once the weather warms up.

The DOT would push $275 million of the infusion into this construction season. That would represent a 15 percent increase over the $1.76 billion the agency previously announced it would spend in the budget year that ends June 30, but still less than a year earlier.

“The unanswered question is where will the money be spent,” Senate Assistant Majority Leader John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat, said Tuesday. “Assuming this is adequately addressed, I believe there will be bipartisan support.”

A spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton said Senate Democrats would decide Wednesday whether to include the request in this week’s three-day gathering.

It’s a late addition to what could be a busy agenda as lawmakers wind down their two-year session before a new General Assembly is sworn in Jan. 9.

The Senate will be in three days this week, the House, most of next. But major issues dancing in the heads of legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn include wide-scale reform to shore up the underfunded pension system, legalization of gay marriage and a military-style assault weapons ban.

Driving the optimism is the fact that it’s a “lame-duck” session featuring dozens of lawmakers who can vote without fear of voter backlash because they weren’t re-elected in November or are otherwise not returning to their seats.

The road funding bump would buffer an otherwise disappointing drop in transportation-improvement money from the 2012 budget year. Even with additional concrete, however, overall spending would still represent a 17 percent reduction from the previous construction season.

A Transportation spokesman did not have immediate comment about the plan Tuesday.

According to the summary provided to senators, the bulk of the extra money is $175 from the federal government from a revised funding formula that was part of the national transportation plan approved last summer and $110 million by restricting “diversions” from the road fund to other state expenses.

Quinn has made Jan. 9 – the official end of the current General Assembly – the deadline for coming up with a solution to the nation’s most underfunded state-employee pension system. The $96 million debt in five retirement programs grows by $17 million daily, he says. He wants “comprehensive pension reform that fixes the problem,” spokesman Abdon Pallasch said.

But Chicago Democrat Cullerton, the Senate president, is promoting a measure his chamber adopted last spring that reduces retirement benefits just for lawmakers and state employees. He believes that gives officials a starting point to test the law’s constitutionality and bypasses for now the contentious question about whether local school districts should have to pay a share of teacher pensions.

Like Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, prefers a comprehensive solution, “but that hasn’t worked out, so we’re ready to take on other approaches,” spokesman Steve Brown said.

The best bet for an all-inclusive approach is one put forth by rank-and-file legislators in November. It would mean higher employee contributions and reduced benefits, but backers say it would put an immediate $30 billion dent in the unfunded liability.

“There’s a lot of interest in getting something done and there’s a lot of momentum, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said one of the plan’s leaders, Rep. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat.

With the December massacre at a school in Newtown, Conn., fresh on lawmakers’ minds, look for legislation to ban military-style assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold dozens of rounds.

“My interest is in passing a policy that keeps children and law enforcement safe from people with assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines,” said Sen. Dan Kotowksi, D-Park Ridge.

Kotowski said he anticipates legislation similar to that which he sponsored in 2008, which would have prohibited semi-automatic assault weapons and .50-caliber rifles. It got a Senate committee’s OK but went no further.

Sen. Heather Steans said she has enough support to make Illinois the 10th state to legalize gay marriage. But the Chicago Democrat worries about whether colleagues whose votes will be back from needs will be back holiday and family vacations and other obligations.

Steans said she might have to let action start next week in the House, then return to the Senate.

“We’ve got it as long as we can get everyone there,” she said.

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