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Friday, April 23, 2004 03:54 am

Speaker speaks up

This was supposed to be a quiet year at the Statehouse.

The Democrats have some vulnerable incumbents, particularly in the House. The fewer problems and the less controversy, the better for incumbents. At least, that's what just about everybody figured.

But then last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan surprised the state's political world and whacked Gov. Rod Blagojevich but good.

Madigan said he wouldn't support the governor's proposed fee hikes without conditions, said he thought the governor has relied on "too much" borrowing, expressed serious reservations about the governor's plan to consolidate the school construction program, and opposed closing the prison in Vandalia.

The Speaker informed a Rockford newspaper columnist that "we went too far" with fee increases last year. Madigan said he had informed the governor's budget director that "before we do any further fee increases, we have to have relief for trucking companies." The General Assembly approved large tax and fee hikes on trucking companies last year, prompting howls of protest from the industry. The governor has refused to reconsider the increases, which totaled a bit less than $100 million, even though both legislative chambers have passed bills to roll back the fees. The governor has proposed boosting a wide array of fees this year as well, but not on truckers.

Madigan said he planned to hold a hearing in two weeks about the governor's borrowing plans. Blagojevich has proposed borrowing several billion dollars, but hasn't provided any revenue sources to pay for it.

The Speaker also said he's not sure the governor's plan to consolidate the school construction program under state control is a good idea. "I think the program has done very well since Gov. Jim Edgar inaugurated it," he said. Blagojevich touted his plan as a way to squeeze $160 million in efficiencies from the construction program.

A couple of weeks ago, Madigan put the kibosh on the governor's plan to restructure teacher certification. He has also expressed concerns about budget cuts to the State Board of Education. And Madigan quietly, but firmly signaled he was ready to kill or grossly alter the governor's proposal to change the way some social-service providers are paid, a plan that was supposed to save the state millions of dollars and allow it to capture millions more in new federal matching funds.

Put all of this together and the Speaker has just blown a several hundred million dollar hole in the governor's budget and undercut much of what the governor has tried to do in the past 16 months.

Madigan has not challenged a governor in this way since 1994, when Jim Edgar was in charge. Since then, he has tried his best to publicly stay on the governor's good side.

Ten years ago, Madigan told me he had learned his lesson after his extended, high-profile fights with Edgar. He started off determined to show Edgar who was boss. Four brutal years later, Edgar was re-elected in a landslide and Madigan lost control of the House. Madigan said afterwards he finally realized that when legislators fight with governors, the public always sides with the governors.

But nobody with any power at the Statehouse has said no to this governor. Without some sort of braking action, Blagojevich's continued push for fee hikes, his heavy borrowing, and his attempted removal of local control from schools (not to mention his very liberal social positions and his pro-Chicago bent) might do more harm to Madigan's targeted incumbents than keeping everything quiet and going along with the program.

So much for a quiet session.

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