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Thursday, March 3, 2005 02:37 pm

The devil and Mr. Jones

Emil Jones was not treated too well during his 10 years as the minority leader of the state Senate.

The majority Republicans locked him out of the room and killed most of his members’ bills. His fellow Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan, treated Jones like a junior associate, occasionally helping him out but not doing all that much to backstop him in the process.

Jones’ single greatest legislative accomplishment of his long term in the minority was during Gov. George Ryan’s tenure, when he was able to force the Senate Republicans into supporting a law making education an entitlement program. The media mostly ignored Jones’ accomplishment, but members of the leader’s staff asked for a pristine copy of my story so that they could present it to their boss.

Jones’ Democrats finally regained the majority in the 2002 elections, and the first bill introduced in that chamber, Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Senate President Jones himself, was designed to make sure that the entitlement, which expired in 2003, would remain part of state law.

It’s easy to be cynical about legislative leaders and their pet projects, but Jones has always been truly committed to increasing funding for schools and providing education with a stable and ample revenue source. He saw the “education as entitlement” proposal as a major part of his legacy — perhaps the single most important thing he could do as a legislator — and he was eager to permanently ensconce it in Illinois statutes.

After Jones’ bill flew out of the Senate, House Speaker Madigan stuffed it into the rules committee and refused to move it, claiming that the legislation’s costs were too high to bear during the ongoing fiscal crisis. Jones retaliated by bottling up one of Madigan’s top legislative priorities in his own rules committee.

Anyone who spoke to Jones about Madigan during that time sensed that big trouble was brewing. There wasn’t much of an opportunity to do anything about it in 2003, however, because the governor seemed to go out of his way to snub Madigan and Jones equally, and the Democratic Party’s special interests did a good job of keeping everyone focused on the tasks at hand.

The tipping point came the next year, when Madigan suggested that he could go along with Senate Republican budget proposals that, in Jones’ mind, drastically shortchanged schools. Jones threw in with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who wanted a much more generous education appropriation. The spring session devolved into a summertime free-for-all, with Madigan and the Republicans on one side, Jones and the governor on the other.

This year, Jones dropped SB 1 from his wish list altogether and instead supported a tax-swap idea that would pump millions into education. This, he decided, would be his legacy: property-tax reductions to help struggling homeowners and an income-tax increase that would get schools out of hock and provide them with a stable revenue source.

Blagojevich had other ideas, however. As support built across the state, with school boards and editorial pages supporting Jones’ plan, Blagojevich, who campaigned by saying he would not support any income tax hike, decided to nip the whole thing in the bud.

The governor waited until his budget address to drop his bombs.

Not only did Blagojevich propose a “paltry” — Jones’ word — $140 million increase for education, but he made a grand point of vowing to veto any proposal increasing the income tax for schools. For good measure, he publicly scolded those who supported such ideas.

Always the boxer, Blagojevich didn’t bother notifying Jones about the impending punch. Jones was stunned and angry, and he made no effort to hide his emotions during a press-availability period later that day.

“I didn’t appreciate what he had to say about education, trying to slap the reform of education,” Jones said. “It leads me to believe he doesn’t understand it.”

The governor told me last week that he didn’t think his attack on Jones’ tax idea was personal. “It’s political,” the governor explained.

He’s right, but only about himself. The governor may not have intended to personally insult Jones, but that’s not how Jones sees it. He’s not a happy man.

All Jones has ever really wanted was respect — not just for him but also for his ideas. Blagojevich finally gave him that respect last year, and Jones responded well. This year, Jones feels insulted all over again. And if things don’t calm down, it could be another long, hot summer in Springfield.

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