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Thursday, June 17, 2004 06:41 pm

Little big man

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Stifling their yawns and wiping sleep from their eyes, a steady flow of slightly disheveled lawmakers shuffled into the Capitol. Most were still recovering from the previous night's marathon legislative session that held them hostage past midnight.

House Speaker Michael Madigan assumed the podium sporting a fresh haircut and dapper suit that countered the general lag in the chamber. His announcement sparked a chorus of groans, making an already cranky legislature seem downright peevish.

As everyone was well aware, the General Assembly had failed to pass next year's budget by May 31, missing its constitutional deadline and launching what may become the longest open-ended overtime session in a decade.

House members were kept on a long leash, as Madigan ordered them to remain on-call, and ready to return to Springfield on 24 hours notice.

"That's just kind of the way it is," said Madigan as explanation.

Roused by the news that their immediate summer plans may be in peril, Democrats and Republicans rushed to file grievances with a press corps eager to record them.

Their rhetoric was harsh, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich bore the brunt of the bipartisan bashing. Lawmakers blasted the first-term governor as incompetent, inexperienced, and disengaged from the budget process.

Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, seemed to speak for all his exasperated, weary-eyed colleagues: "Most members here just want to go home."

As Deputy House Majority Leader Art Turner, D-Chicago, set to adjourn, Black introduced some levity to the brief session. If the House Speaker wants lawmakers on-call, said Black, he should dole out free pagers.

Turner deadpanned, in response, "Just look for smoke signals coming from the Capitol."

More than two weeks later, with a July 1 deadline looming that could shut down state government, black smoke continues to billow from the Capitol's gilded dome.

 

Choked by a poisonous clash of egos, politics, and policy wrangling, legislative leaders still are working to hammer out a compromise plan to plug a roughly $2 billion hole in the $54 billion budget for fiscal 2005.

Blagojevich's proposal, which sailed through the Senate, would have increased spending for health care, education, and public safety by more than $750 million. To accomplish this, he relied on some of the controversial methods he employed last fiscal year to close what was then a whopping $5 billion deficit.

Holding firm to his oft-repeated campaign pledge not to increase state sales or income taxes, the governor had hoped to instead raise business fees, close corporate tax loopholes, and raid special-purpose funds.

Initially he counted on several other one-time cash cows -- like mortgaging a state office building in Chicago and selling the state's 10th casino license. But such measures have since been stalled for legal reasons, forcing him to dig elsewhere.

Madigan, who serves as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, surprised some by joining with Republicans to block the governor's proposal. The veteran House Speaker opposes taxing businesses, which the state also tapped for cash last year, and favors a smaller increase in state spending than the Blagojevich plan.

"We got a governor who's trying to borrow and spend money that we don't have," says Madigan, who at one point proposed a no-growth budget to resolve what he views as the state's structural deficit problem.

But some question Madigan's motives for throwing a wrench into the governor's Senate-backed plan. Senate President Emil Jones, a fellow Democrat, says it was a pure power play.

"I recognize we have a revenue shortage, and one doesn't like to borrow, but government is run the same way people live their lives," says Jones. "Ninety percent of people wouldn't have their own homes if they didn't have the option to borrow."

In-fighting among Democrats, who control virtually all levels of state government, has opened the door for Republican influence. The budget now must pass with a three-fifths majority vote in both the House and Senate -- rather than a simple majority vote -- requiring Republican support.

"We're having a little more say in the process," says House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. "We'd like to see some modest spending, with a fair share of money spent upstate and downstate."

Failing to meet the May 31 deadline was a political embarrassment for Blagojevich, who has seen his popularity plummet in recent months. After a two-hour meeting with legislative leaders last Friday, he expressed worry that his foes may be setting him up for further humiliation.

"I hope it's just not a delaying tactic," said the governor, regarding Madigan's call to have an independent economic commission crunch the numbers in his budget proposal.

"I'm assuming good faith here," Blagojevich continued, adding that he hopes his negotiating partners are not "running out the clock and playing games."

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown later volleyed that the proposal was made not to prolong the process but to resolve whether the governor's plan was fiscally sound.

"I don't know why the governor would say that," says Brown. "Most people would say that the clock ran out at the end of May."

lagojevich rode into Springfield two years ago spoiling for a fight. He won the governor's seat on a campaign pledge to rid state government of the corruption that was widespread under his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, who now is charged in a federal racketeering indictment with conspiracy and fraud.

While using the media to carefully craft a populist image, the 47-year-old former congressman made strides last year by passing the state's most comprehensive ethics reform law in some three decades. But his heavy-handed dealings with the legislature, which he has publicly belittled and sought to intimidate at every opportunity, has now left him somewhat alienated.

"Ego is involved, more so than with any governor I've ever seen," says Charles Wheeler III, who reported on state government for the Chicago Sun-Times for 24 years and now serves as director of the public affairs reporting program at University of Illinois at Springfield. "This governor's attitude toward the budget is, 'I've proposed my budget, now it's your responsibility to rubber stamp what I've put forward.' "

Blagojevich has ridiculed the legislature as spending money like "drunken sailors" on a "spending orgy," and condemned the state Board of Education as a "Soviet-style bureaucracy." Locals often grumble about his notoriously rare visits to Springfield, as well as his decision to reside in his native Chicago rather than uproot his family to the Executive Mansion.

"We have a governor who doesn't want to come to Springfield but wants to impugn the assembly," says state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield.

Often criticized for "governing by photo op," Blagojevich threw down the gauntlet yet again during a press conference in Chicago at the end of April. He accused the legislature of having a "narrow-minded, special interest-focused mindset," though he still had yet to meet with lawmakers since unveiling his budget proposal a month earlier.

"You don't get what you want by grandstanding this way," says Sen. Christine Radogno, R-LaGrange. "It's fairly amateurish and shows a lack of leadership."

Veteran state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations I Committee, says governors generally begin negotiations with the legislature in February. Blagojevich, he says, didn't bother coming to the table until mid-May -- just weeks before the constitutional deadline.

By then, Madigan made it clear a revolt was underway as he reportedly refused to attend negotiating sessions held in Blagojevich's office.

"The Speaker felt he didn't want to be supportive of the budget," says Senate President Jones, who participated in the meetings. "There may be some personal reasons he's against the governor."

Madigan spokesman Brown insists the current gridlock is based solely on differences of policy, not personality. But some speculate Madigan has grown weary of the governor's public attacks on the legislature, and has flexed his muscle to show him who's boss.

Some of the rift between the two Democrats may owe more to Chicago politics than state issues. Blagojevich is the son-in-law of powerful North Side Chicago Alderman Richard Mell; Madigan is a dominant player in a southwest Chicago ward organization.

Adding to the strain between the two factions are the persistent political rumors that the Speaker's daughter, Lisa Madigan, now in her first term as Illinois Attorney General, will challenge Blagojevich for the governorship in 2006.

Earlier this month -- just three days into the overtime budget session -- Blagojevich accused Lisa Madigan of doing her father's bidding when she ruled as unconstitutional the governor's attempt to mortgage a state building to help close the budget gap.

"I don't want to get involved in a family deal here, but you know it's her father," said Blagojevich, provoking bipartisan outrage from female elected officials throughout the state.

If Blagojevich had angered only legislators, it might not be a big deal -- and constituents might be in his corner. But his negotiation tactics have also antagonized some of Illinois' most powerful special-interest groups and trade associations.

Blagojevich initially demanded that the state's largest employees' union pay part of their pension contribution, setting off months of protests at the Capitol by thousands of state workers. Just last week, the governor's office announced a compromise was reached with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, though no details were disclosed.

Despite the resolution, there may be some lingering hard feelings against the governor. "Our members were very angry at the proposals on the table," says Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31. "The concessions the governor initially sought were unprecedented."

Bayer says the association's work isn't finished, as the union opposes the governor's plan to close an 80-year-old prison located downstate in Vandalia that would displace more than 400 workers.

A poll released by the Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV on May 28 suggests that voters, too, have soured on the once-popular governor. Just 40 percent of the 600 registered voters who were surveyed said they viewed the governor's job performance favorably, down from 55 percent three months earlier.

Some observers say Blagojevich, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on pollsters since being elected governor, sprang into action after the Tribune survey was made public.

"The governor spent more time in Springfield in the weeks since the poll was released than he did in the last year-and-a-half," says Sen. Bomke, the Springfield Republican.

Blagojevich's office declined to make him available for an interview with Illinois Times.

 

The Capitol has been sleepy during the past couple weeks.

Security guards and doormen lean back in their chairs, arms crossed and eyes half-closed. Hallways are empty except for the occasional cluster of TV news crews, often laying sprawled on the floor alongside their bulky camera equipment.

The legislature has been called back into session just a couple times since the budget impasse, and even then relatively little was accomplished.

Lawmakers discussed some important issues, such as legislation capping skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums.

On June9, legislators agreed to borrow $850 million to pay the state's outstanding Medicaid bills. They also voted to reject a pay increase for themselves.

But Madigan made clear that lawmakers were called in mostly to show that the legislature could still function despite gridlock over the budget. As he set to adjourn, Madigan called the session "more symbolic than anything else."

Though those involved in budget negotiations have called the meetings contentious, virtually all debate has been entirely hidden from public view.

Back in late April, when Blagojevich led a press conference in Chicago intended to browbeat the General Assembly into accepting his budget proposal, he made voters a promise.

"We're not going to do it the old way, where you hide behind closed doors with a handful of legislative leaders and the governor and you whisper to one another some of the things you're doing to the people out there," he said, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune.

But in the weeks since the overtime session began, budget talks have become exclusively closed-door affairs, as a small handful of leaders from the House and Senate continue to meet privately in the governor's office.

Even legislators complain about the process, worrying that they may not be given enough time to review the details when they are eventually called back for a vote.

Some political observers note that the current overtime session is not unusual, pointing to similar situations during past administrations. What makes this year's gridlock so remarkable, says UIS professor Wheeler, is that it has nothing to do with partisan bickering.

The current administration has reached a new plateau of ineptitude, he says, as Blagojevich has failed to pass a budget despite the fact that his own party dominates nearly every major lever of state government.

"Democrats had total control, and Republicans would have been frozen out of the process," Wheeler says. "You would expect the party to get it done."

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