Doing a Favor with a Gun in Your Hand

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(Photo: Frankly my dear transit rider, I don’t give a damn.)

When I moved to Chicago in 2003 and my white-collar job prospect petered out, I did time working in commission sales. It’s a pyrrhic profession for the uninitiated–unless you’re convincing (or conniving), it’s a race against time to avoid having to pay back the alleged salary you’re advanced in order to keep you living long enough to make more sales. For those with no other immediate choice, like I was, you’re grateful to have the job.

I suppose it’s a similar gratitude Governor Blagojevich expected from the RTA on Wednesday when he announced his support for a State Senate construction plan that would tie $200 million in transit funding to a new Chicago casino. But while some might find the most surprising part of the plan to be the idea of the fabled tenth casino license (not to mention unheard of licenses eleven and twelve) actually seeing the light of day, the real shocker for the RTA was the provision that if the region’s parent transit agency found a better source of funds, it would have to pay that $200 million back.

Responding to the proposal yesterday, according to the Sun-Times, the agency wasn’t amused. Well who would be? My mother used to call help like that doing a favor with a gun in your hand. Ordinarily, the RTA would have little choice but to accept every dollar it could to help forestall Chicagoland transit “doomsday“. That included the Governor’s recent, ad-hoc funding advance to keep the CTA running in one piece through early November. But should it include a proposal to actually reimburse emergency operating funds if and when other funds become available? And from where, exactly, does Blago expect those other funds to come?

Apparently from the same legislature floating the construction plan. According to the Sun-Times, Blago intends to front the $200 million to the RTA now to keep the CTA, Metra, and Pace running until the end of the year. After January 1, a new Democratic majority in the statehouse would finally be able to pass a transit-funding bill on its own–assumedly (for Blago) a bill that would include that pesky additional $200 million to help the RTA give said $200 million right back to the state.

Now I’ve heard a lot of creative funding schemes before, but I’ve sure never heard of a state lending money to its cities’ transit systems to keep them running, much less yanking the same money back later. I do, however, find politicians who will do whatever they can to preserve their political capital–also known as saving face–in the midst of a losing battle to be far less of a surprise.

Except the only real losers here are Chicagoland’s two-million transit riders, who continue to suffer through legislative gridlock and consistently uninspiring gubernatorial alleged attempts at aid, while their ability to simply get to work in six weeks still hangs in the balance.

It’s a real lesson in priorities, folks, and it’s transit riders who are getting it. If Blago backs down from his opposition to a sales-tax increase to support transit–even though his support would likely help get it passed and instantly fix Chicagoland’s transit-funding dilemma–he loses personal political traction. So better to let northern Illinois transit riders suffer for a few more months so that the legislature can finally do what he won’t.

In the end, Chicago gets its sales-tax increase anyway and Blago doesn’t have to take the blame for it. Transit riders are happy, and in the jubilation nobody remembers who it was who put them through unnecessary additional months of hell.

I’m impressed. Until now, I suspected there wasn’t much going on beneath Blago’s boyish coiff besides an impish grin and a propensity to hold a grudge. Throwing “heartless Machiavellian schemer” into the mix certainly makes me feel a lot better about the guy.

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