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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich  took credit for giving senior citizens free bus rides Monday but hedged from the idea he shares responsibility for the sales tax increase that goes along with it.

Blagojevich toured the state, including a stop at the  Spring Valley Apartment Complex in Moline, to urge senior citizens there to take advantage of the free rides, which will take effect March 17.

“You’re in a time of your life when you shouldn’t have to worry about some things,” he said.

The Legislature approved the freebie last week as part of a $530 million measure that averts a transit crisis in Chicago but includes the 0.25 percent to

0.5 percent sales tax increase.

Blagojevich initially opposed the sales tax boost, which will apply only to the Chicago area, but said Monday it was the only thing that could pass the Legislature.

As a result, he said he used his powers to add the free ride provision.

“I decided to take the lemon they sent me, which was that sales tax increase, and try to make it into lemonade,” he said.

What the governor did was use his amendatory veto power to change the bill, adding the free rides for seniors but leaving stand the tax increase. The Legislature narrowly approved the change.

After the Moline event, though, Blagojevich distanced himself from the tax increase. “I didn’t (give in). I vetoed it. I rewrote the bill,” he said when asked if since he gave in on this tax increase he might do the same to get a capital construction bill passed.

Blagojevich has been pushing the plan for months.

The governor said there were no circumstances under which he would approve a sales tax increase and said he’d oppose any tax hike.

“My guess is (House) Speaker (Mike) Madigan is going to push another tax increase, and the worst thing you can do during a slowing economy or an economy that’s going into recession is add more burdens to people and raise more taxes on people,’’ Blagojevich said. “I would oppose that.”

Meanwhile, senior citizens who were at Spring Valley for the governor’s visit said they appreciate the free rides.

“I think the government passing this bill, it’s wonderful,” said Marilyn Hodges, of Moline, who appeared with the governor.

MetroLINK  officials say 5,000 people could sign up for the free service. A ride costs a senior citizen 40 cents.

About 177,000 of the 2.5 million MetroLINK fares in 2007 were seniors.

The legislation also includes $800,000 in new money for MetroLINK, which amounts to about 10 percent of its budget, said Jeff Nelson, its executive director.

About $100,000 will be used to make up for the lost fares from seniors. It has not been determined how the rest of the money will be spent, but it could cover a mix of operating and capital costs.

Ed Tibbetts can be contacted at (563) 383-2327 or etibbetts@qctimes.com.

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