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Thursday, June 22, 2006 02:32 pm

Meeks speaks

Defends effort to force the governor’s hand on education

When last we heard from state Sen. James Meeks, the Chicago independent had dropped out of the governor’s race and endorsed Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s much-hyped education/lottery plan. With the proposal now under fire from almost all corners, I thought it might be a good time to check back in with him. “Nobody is discussing the education-reform plan,” Meeks says when asked what most surprised him about the reaction. “Everybody is discussing the funding source.”
That’s true. Most editorialists, columnists, and critics have lauded the proposed education reforms, but they’ve all blasted away at the idea of selling or leasing the lottery to pay for it. Still, I suggest to Meeks, there’s a growing sense that the education reforms he pressured the governor into accepting in exchange for bowing out of the race will benefit Chicago at the expense of downstate. Meeks is undaunted, pointing out that well over $200 million would be spent statewide the first year. Plus, he says, “Everybody will get new textbooks, all schools will get new libraries . . . and new technology.”
Meeks refuses to directly criticize the governor’s universally panned rollout of the proposal, but he is clearly not happy with the way it was done. When asked about House Speaker Michael Madigan’s letter to legislators, which demanded several answers about the proposal, including the funding source, Meeks says, “A mistake that any leader makes is when that individual’s entire leadership team is not on board and forced to ask public questions. Speaker Madigan is now asking public questions. . . . But before I would make a big announcement like that, I would make sure that my leadership team is completely on board.”
Meeks is also taking Madigan’s belated criticisms with a grain of salt. Madigan noted in his letter that he worked with Gov. Jim Edgar on a tax-swap plan, so Meeks claims that Madigan is now implying that the tax swap is the way to proceed. “But when I was trying to do that [tax swap] deal,” Meeks says, Madigan was “nowhere to be found. He was silent. But now all of a sudden he writes letters about that, and I’m saying, ‘What in the world is going on?’”
Meeks dismisses much of the harsh criticism by the media and in the political sphere of the lottery-based funding mechanism. “The same people who are saying this is a bad idea . . . these are the same people who were against what I was trying to do before,” he says, adding it doesn’t make a difference what is proposed; the level of criticism will be the same. What about the criticism that he was looking for a graceful way out of the race and fell for a Blagojevich bluff? Meeks insists that he was serious about the campaign and reminds me of all the conversations we had about the legwork and preparations he had done. And Meeks has harsh words for those who suggest that he agreed to a bad idea. When he was contemplating a run for governor as a way to force a deal on education reform, he claims, “none of the school funding groups, not one, called me and said ‘This is the right thing to do.’ They were not backing me — and now all of a sudden they have a lot of opinions. If they were around to give me some advice, maybe I would have made the choices that they wanted.”
The governor has taken some well-deserved hits for his claims that the threatened Meeks candidacy had nothing at all to do with the new education plan or the timing of the announcement. Meeks won’t directly counter the governor’s statements but does note that he met with the governor’s education people twice to discuss his plan and that much of what he proposed on the reform side “showed up as [the governor’s] plan” three weeks later. Another criticism leveled at Meeks is that he trusted Blagojevich to implement a plan even though almost nobody in state government trusts the guv. Meeks says he hopes that the Legislative Black Caucus, which he chairs, will back him up next spring. “If they don’t see what the governor has promised in next year’s budget, they don’t have to vote on it,” Meeks says. “We could be there until Christmas.”
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