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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 08:26 am

The oddest budget ever

Political revenge seemed to drive the governor’s vetoes

Untitled Document In what has to be the most blatantly political budgetary veto in Illinois history, Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week ham-handedly attempted to punish his enemies, reward his friends, and entice some members he will need on crucial votes. The governor, who has openly warred with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate Republican leader Frank Watson, didn’t even try to mask the political nature of his hundreds of millions of dollars in line-item and reduction vetoes. He left intact all of the “pork” projects for his Senate Democratic allies, who will refuse to override the vetoes, while killing off most of the pork for his House Democrat and Senate Republican “enemies.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, also spared was House Republican pork and most projects for members who sit on the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. The House GOP pork was likely spared because the governor is trying to drive a wedge between Madigan and House Republican leader Tom Cross on any override attempt of his vetoes. When Cross agreed with the other legislative leaders to support the budget, he also agreed to back any motions related to ensuring that the entire budget passed, including any overrides. 
With House Republican pork saved from the chopping block, Cross’ members may be unwilling to endanger the cash distribution for their projects. If Blagojevich showed anything last week, he amply demonstrated that he is more than willing to punish local schools, fire stations, police departments, advocates for AIDS patients, and even veterans’ homes that happen to fall within the districts of legislators who refuse to toe his political line. He could easily hold up the pork money for any House Republican who votes for a veto-override motion. Blagojevich did not release his plan for spending the nearly $500 million that he slashed from the state budget, but he reiterated last week that he will ask for changes in administrative rules to allow him to spend the cash on new health-care programs.
That’s most likely why he left intact almost all the projects put into the budget by JCAR members, who will have to vote on any new rules changes. Some JCAR members said that they would not be swayed, but they will undoubtedly be under intense pressure from recipients of their pork cash to not rock the boat. Cutting legislative “member initiatives” wasn’t the only political move by the governor. He drastically slashed funding for the Illinois Arts Council, chaired by Shirley Madigan, the House speaker’s wife. At least $9 million was cut out of grants distributed by the council, including a million dollars for the Illinois Channel and $1.5 million for grants for public radio and TV. The auditor general’s office, which has produced some brutally honest audits of the Blagojevich administration, saw its funding proposal cut way back, as did the comptroller’s and attorney general’s offices, both of whom are headed by frequent Blagojevich critics. Blagojevich did not cut the spending request for his own office. The governor also zero-funded “Operation Ceasefire,” which works with former gang members. The Senate Democrats had sought to eliminate funding for the program, but it was insisted upon by the House Democrats and Senate Republicans. Blagojevich sided with the Senate Democrats yet again on that one. At least $700,000 in budgetary add-ons sought by House Democrats for AIDS testing and prevention programs were slashed  and $500,000 for a program to track birth defects, backed strongly by some House Democrats, was also removed. The House Democrats had pushed for an extra $50 million for nursing homes in the budget, but that was eliminated, as was money for cost-of-living increases and “safety net” money for providers in areas such as alcoholism and substance abuse ($6.6 million), developmental disabilities ($11 million), mental health ($8 million), and hospitals ($40 million). If you didn’t know any better, looking at many of the cuts you’d think that the Democratic governor was an ultraconservative Republican. A newborn hearing program was eliminated, for instance, as was a $1.2 million plan for preparedness against pandemic flu. A quarter-million dollars for a committee to study capital-punishment reform was zeroed out, as was as a $240,000 grant to the Downstate Innocence Project, which works to release wrongly convicted prisoners. But the governor didn’t base his choices on ideology. The cuts were almost entirely political revenge, which makes this just about the oddest budget ever.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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