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Thursday, May 13, 2004 02:01 pm

Chain reaction

There's always a soap opera in progress at the Illinois statehouse, but this year's version is a bit crazier than usual.

• House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, is killing off Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's proposals left and right. Madigan's strongest supporters so far are two Republicans: Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson and state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

• Democratic Senate President Emil Jones is miffed at Madigan for reviving a bill sponsored by Watson. And Jones also jumped on the anti-Blagojevich bandwagon late last week by announcing his opposition to a tax hike on farmers.

• Blagojevich, meanwhile, is trying to drive a wedge into the Speaker's caucus.

• House Republican Leader Tom Cross, one of the governor's main allies last year, seems to be siding with Madigan more often than not these days.

• John Filan, the governor's budget director, has taken to publicly insulting anyone who disagrees with him.

As I said, it's crazy.

After giving the governor pretty much all he wanted last year, Madigan has decided to say no this year, setting off a massive chain reaction.

Madigan thinks the governor is borrowing too much money and putting off paying the principal on that debt for too many years. He has turned thumbs down on Blagojevich's plan to strip the Illinois State Board of Education of all of its powers. He has indirectly criticized Blagojevich for raising too many taxes on businesses. He has also publicly advised the governor to prepare for deep budget cuts.

Senate Republicans and Topinka have been complaining about Blagojevich's borrowing habits for a year, so they welcomed Madigan's endorsement of their position. And they oppose the governor's tax hikes and demand more budget cuts.

But this new and seemingly cozy relationship between Madigan and Watson isn't sitting well with Jones. Watson sponsored legislation this spring that would make it much more difficult for the governor to borrow money. Jones killed the bill, but then Madigan essentially revived it and invited Watson to testify before a special House committee hearing. To Jones, Madigan's move was a serious breach of legislative protocol. This sort of thing just isn't done.

Jones made it clear, however, that a disagreement with Madigan wouldn't translate into a lockstep alliance with Blagojevich. On Thursday, the same day Madigan held his state-debt hearing, Jones said he wouldn't support the governor's proposed $27 million hike in the sales tax on agriculture chemicals and fertilizer.

Also on Thursday, 27 House Democrats held a press conference to support the governor's education plan. The large number of Democrats who were willing to publicly disagree with Madigan came as a surprise.

The governor crowed about the large turnout, expressing hope that his plan would prevail. But while he was bragging, the House Republicans tossed in their lot with Madigan and supported his alternative education-reform plan. Madigan now has more than enough votes to kill the governor's idea.

And that brings us to budget director Filan. During Madigan's hearing on the state debt, Filan was forced to defend the administration's borrowing practices.

In the process, he let loose a barrage of insults against Democratic Comptroller Dan Hynes and Topinka -- remarks that are likely to drive more Republicans into Madigan's Democratic arms.

It's too soon to say where it will all eventually wind up. But that's what makes soap operas so much fun to watch.

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