The Patriot Act . . . Now at your local library
Last week was a public relations nightmare for Rod Blagojevich.
A few months after freezing the wages of nonunion state employees and deducting 4 percent from their checks to pay for their pension contributions, a month after vetoing pay raises for legislators and judges, two weeks after unilaterally slashing the operating budgets of two statewide constitutional officers--and the same day Latino legislators slammed him for breaking a promise to not cut funds for social programs--the governor gave pay raises to some of his workers, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The Tribune's story was mostly "gotcha" journalism. Only 6 of Blago's 91 employees received pay raises. The largest boost--$10,000--went to an attorney who's now making a relatively modest annual salary of $65,000. Three workers got $5,000 raises, and one received a $1,000 bump.
Even including those pay hikes, the governor has cut his own office budget by 15 percent. The six workers were "probationary" employees, hired at lower salaries than the positions had previously paid, and the raises did not exceed those former wages. According to the guv's office, 7 out of 16 probationary employees were not retained at the end of the fiscal year.
In other words, there was really no story. But when you live by the "gotcha," as Governor Blagojevich has, you can die by the "gotcha." Blago lured the General Assembly into formulating a gaming expansion bill, then publicly berated legislators for doing it. He never uttered a single objection to budget increases for statewide constitutional officers, then ordered them to slice their budgets just one day before the new fiscal year began. He traded his support for some Latino-backed social programs in exchange for Hispanic votes on his revenue increases; then he sliced those programs from the budget without warning.
So the Tribune's story might have been unfair if viewed in a vacuum. But the governor appears to deserve every milligram of grief wrought by that nonstory. If he wants to act holier-than-thou, he'll always be held to a much higher standard. His self-congratulatory talk about cutting his office budget obscures the fact that Illinois ranked fourth in the nation this year in budget increases, according to a report by the National Governors' Association.
Blagojevich managed to avoid a complete PR disaster by cutting a last-minute deal. Advocates for the homeless were planning to set up a soup kitchen in front of the James Thompson Center in downtown Chicago last Wednesday to protest the governor's $1 million reduction in homelessness-prevention funds.
If the pay raise story was ever connected to the homeless budget cut story, the governor would look like just another "Old Way" politician, helping out his buddies at the expense of the helpless. His pleas of poverty would also look self-serving.
The governor's office begged the homeless activists to call off their demonstration. "We're on the same side," the guv's people reportedly implored. Nothing doing, said the advocates. When you cut funding for homeless programs, you're not on our side.
So the governor did what any desperate politician would do--he caved like a marshmallow sunroof. By the end of the day, the million dollar cut was restored, and for good measure the governor promised he'd try to find three million dollars more.
The short-term problem was solved, but the governor now has a serious long-term problem on his hands. Latino legislators feel double-crossed. The Latino Caucus is remarkably solid, and they could probably torpedo any of Blagojevich's bills next year. Senator Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), incensed at the governor's program cuts, was asked whether he could ever trust the governor's word. "As it stands now," he said,
"I will have my doubts, and I will have
to look for ways of getting rock-solid guarantees, and that would include written guarantees, before I cast a vote in support of a budget."
After only a year in office, nobody trusted Dan Walker, a self-centered,
serial prevaricator with dreams of national office who thought he was smarter than everyone else and who relentlessly promoted himself as an independent by deliberately picking demagogic fights with other politicians. Sound vaguely familiar?