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Durbin: High hopes for mass transit, worried about jobs, foreclosures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2009 - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., offered up a frank meal of concerns Thursday about the economy, job losses and home foreclosures to a downtown luncheon crowd hosted by the Regional Chamber and Growth Association.

But the No. 2 man in the Senate is optimistic about congressional action to address health care, energy and mass transit.

During his half-hour address at the RCGA's quarters in the Metropolitan Square building, Durbin swiftly ticked off a series of challenges facing Congress and the fellow Illinoisan he'd encouraged to run for president, Barack Obama.

Durbin took note of Obama's high national approval ratings so far, adding dryly, "He's going to need that positive feeling and a lot more."

Close to 14 million Americans are now out of work, including 620,000 in Illinois and 243,000 in Missouri, Durbin said. More are likely to follow, he added, noting that the nation has shed 2.6 million jobs just since January.

And the home foreclosure rate is running about four times higher than housing experts had predicted a year ago, Durbin added. Estimates now call for 8 million foreclosures by the end of 2009, or one in every six owner-occupied homes, he said.

Durbin called the nation's housing troubles "the canary in the coal mine'' that experts should have noticed, and addressed earlier, in actions he said might have headed off some of the nation's economic troubles since then.

(As an aside, Durbin offered a detailed account of his unsuccessful three-year effort to change bankruptcy laws, which he says bar judges from changing mortgage terms for a person's primary residence -- but allow court-ordered changes for vacation homes, second residences and other property held by the person filing for bankruptcy.

The upshot, he said, was that the wealthy who face bankruptcy can get court-ordered breaks unavailable to the middle-class person who faces financial ruin and owns only one home.)

Amid such depressing news, Durbin did offer some glimmers of progress.

He predicted that Congress will make an effort to meet Obama's pledge of tackling health care this year. Addressing the nation's two-tiered problem of higher health-care costs and rising uninsured is "so central to the future of our economy,'' Durbin said.

The chief goals are to craft changes to make health care more affordable, prevent long waits for treatment, offer choice of doctors and allow people happy with their current coverage to keep it.

Durbin acknowledged that lawmakers are considering proposals to tax the health-care benefits of people who have better-than-average coverage. But he predicted that Congress will drop that highly unpopular idea.

The government's dilemma, he explained, is to come up with ways to bring in the federal revenue needed to expand health-care coverage. But there are other ways to collect the money than to tax people's health-care benefits, Durbin added.

Durbin also offered his enthusiastic appraisals of efforts to boost federal action in the development of alternative energy, singling out the resurrection of the FutureGen clean-coal plant in Mattoon, Ill., and the retrofitting of Chicago's Sears Tower (soon to be renamed the Willis Tower, Durbin noted) to transform the 108-story structure from a hefty energy user into an energy producer.

But for his audience, the most welcome news arguably came when Durbin turned his attention to mass transit.

"We don't do justice to passenger rail,'' the senator said, as he reaffirmed his support for a semi-high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis. The proposed trains wouldn't be as speedy as the 200-plus mile-an-hour lines in Europe, but would offer a 4-hour trip between St. Louis and Chicago, rivaling auto and plane alternatives, he said.

Durbin also called for more federal focus on mass transit, and said more money needs to be available for existing light-rail lines --- such as those in St. Louis and Chicago -- instead of directing most of the federal help to new lines.

Afterward, during a brief interview, Durbin said he would support proposals to increase the number of Boeing's C-17 cargo planes called for in this year's budget. He said the military needs the extra cargo capacity, and called the C-17 more versatile and durable than the alternative, the larger and older C-5.

One topic not addressed: Durbin's beleaguered Illinois counterpart, Sen. Roland Burris. Durbin was quoted on cable TV today saying that he was disappointed by some of the latest disclosures involving Burris' appointment to the Senate seat. Durbin said he wouldn't support Burris if he opted to run for the post in 2010.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.