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Wednesday, May 6, 2009 01:03 am

Things aren’t going well for state’s capital plan

But will the “old” Mike Madigan return and save the day?

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Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan

Everybody at the Illinois Statehouse always says they’re for a major, multibillion-dollar public works construction plan. The problem has been that they could never agree on how to spend the money and how to pay for the massive beast.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has taken the blame for the failure of the “capital plan” during the past couple of years, and rightly so. He used every trick in the book to block it.

Then again, if Madigan hadn’t killed Rod Blagojevich’s extremely loosely written capital bills, Blagojevich would’ve probably tried to steal every last dime. To say that there were billions of dollars in almost completely undefined spending would not be an exaggeration.

With Blagojevich gone, everybody now wants to know where Madigan is on capital. And, as usual, nobody really knows what he’s thinking. But lots of folks believe the tea leaves look ominous. Things just aren’t going well.

The governor hasn’t yet started really working legislators on behalf of his tax hike proposals. Madigan has said that passing a budget and closing the $11-12 billion deficit is his first priority, and Quinn won’t back away from his income tax increase. Most legislators have never taken a truly tough vote, and hiking the income tax rate by 50 percent certainly qualifies as truly tough. The longer the tax hike is up in the air, the longer the capital plan could be delayed.

House Republican Leader Tom Cross has refused to support any tax or fee hikes to fund the capital bill. Instead he’s pushing a plan derided by Madigan to vastly expand gaming during the worst gaming recession since time began.

Leader Cross and Speaker Madigan have been feuding all year, and Cross has upped the ante lately by publicly embarrassing Madigan almost every day on the House floor with one loudly debated motion after another to move hot-button but obviously dead bills out of committees. The Republicans always lose the procedural votes and then they immediately blast negative robocalls into targeted Democratic districts deriding politically vulnerable Democratic incumbents for voting against Mom and Apple Pie.

Things are getting awful testy in that chamber.

Using the recent past as a guide, Madigan might be expected to just jam through a no-tax doomsday budget, forget a capital plan altogether and adjourn. That’s essentially what he did last year.

If Madigan did that again this year the result would likely be catastrophic. But perhaps a catastrophe might have to occur to wake everybody up to how serious this situation really is. Voters might be more open to a tax hike if they saw their state and local governments collapse.

There is another historical model, however: The “old” Mike Madigan. Back in 1983, the state’s economic situation seemed hopeless, the state deficit was out of control and Republican Gov. Jim Thompson was begging for tax hikes. Madigan eventually relented and passed a temporary income tax hike and a one cent sales tax increase.

Nobody can really take the chance that “Old Madigan” will return, even if his daughter Lisa Madigan is leading Pat Quinn in all the polls. A recent Public Policy Polling survey of likely Democratic primary voters had Attorney General Madigan leading Gov. Quinn 45-29. A March poll of just Chicago Democrats had Madigan ahead of Quinn by a similar margin.

So, in a desperate bid to stop the unthinkable, a large group of unions and construction industry groups have plunked down a million dollars to run a TV ad during the month of May. The ad, which will air all over the state, lays out the case for a capital plan and urges people to call their legislators.

They wouldn’t bother spending that kind of money if they thought the capital plan was a sure thing and had complete confidence in Madigan. And, yes, it is more than a little ironic that unions have to help ante up a million dollars in advertising to pressure a Democratic legislative leader to enact a major public works bill during the worst economic contraction since the 1930s. To say that Madigan has too much power would be the greatest understatement of the century.

The ad itself isn’t exactly stunning, but that’s probably not the point. Showing Madigan, Cross and everyone else that they’re willing to spend serious cash to back up their words is what will get the attention. Money always talks.

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