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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 01:40 am

Blago’s war on Springfield

What did we do to deserve this?

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Why has Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared war on Springfield? His latest assaults on the local economy make many ask, "What did we do to deserve this?" Those searching for answers say his attacks may be retribution for the fact that his approval rating in Sangamon County is a mere 12 percent or that the county's voters gave his opponent 68 percent of the vote in the last election. True, he's probably angry because he's unpopular — but he's unpopular because he's angry and spiteful. There has to be a better explanation.

First, an assessment of the damage so far.

The governor has said he doesn't care what the legislature's Committee on Government Forecasting and Accountability recommends; "the decision has been made" to move the Illinois Department of Transpor-tation Traffic Safety Division — and its 140 jobs — to Harrisburg. IDOT says the move is designed to save money, but that makes no sense, considering the administration's offer to give existing employees jobs in Springfield while hiring new people in southern Illinois. There is plenty of vacant office space to accommodate the division here, including at IDOT's headquarters building, but the Blagojevich administration didn't even consider that option.

Potentially more damaging to the Springfield economy is the governor's $2.8 million cut to the Department of Historic Preservation, which has resulted in reduced hours at New Salem, the Old State Capitol, the Lincoln Tomb, and the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices. This could be devastating to the tourism industry, which brings more than $350 million a year to Sangamon County. "The world thinks that Springfield is closed," says an exasperated Mayor Tim Davlin.

Big cuts in the budgets of the state's constitutional officers may mean layoffs here. The secretary of state's office took an $18 million hit, which will mean unpaid days off for the 3,800 employees. It could mean layoffs of 300 to 600 employees, many of whom live in Sangamon County.

The governor's cut of $480 million in funding for substance abuse treatment centers statewide will affect Springfield, too. The Triangle Center must cut $538,000 out of its budget. Stephen Knox, Triangle's chief executive office, writes that the cost of untreated addiction is well known: "There will be more crime. Our county jail population . . . will continue to swell." Homeless people will go untreated. Consequences will include lost worker productivity, school dropouts, teen pregnancies, increased numbers of emergency-department visits, and child abuse.

Can Springfield fight back? Davlin is appropriately angry at the actions of his fellow Democrat in the governor's office, but for now his words are measured. "You have to walk a fine line," he told me in an interview. "If you put boxing gloves on, you can get thrown down in the first round." He is working with tourism officials to make the economic argument that tourism doesn't cost — it pays. With the Lincoln bicentennial coming up next year, this no time to spread the message that Illinois is unfriendly to tourism.

Gary Plummer, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, says job diversification is another strategy. One of the motivations for the Chamber's Q5 job-creation initiative was to replace the 6,000 state jobs that have been lost to Sangamon County since 1990. (About half of those jobs have been lost since Blagojevich took office in 2003.) And Plummer hasn't given up on the 140 IDOT jobs. "Having the legislature on our side is very important," he said. "Also, a legal battle could occur."

The battles must go on. The mayor has a strong case for restoring funds for historic sites, and the courts may yet rule against moving the traffic-safety division to Harrisburg. Ultimately, however, Springfield's economy won't be safe from these kinds of raids until the state has new revenues.

The deeper reason behind the governor's anger is that he has been unsuccessful in office. His programs don't go anywhere because his funding proposals — selling the lottery, expanding gambling, levying business taxes — are unconventional and politically unacceptable. He contradicts himself when he says he wants the legislature to increase education funding "as long as they don't raise taxes on people." Rumors that House Speaker Mike Madigan is working on a proposal to increase the income tax, to be introduced this fall, should come as welcome news here.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.