September 17, 2007
Democrats' Dysfunction Hobbles Illinois
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Photo by John Gramlich, Stateline.orgA sign on a Chicago "L" elevated train urges commuters to lobby for more state funding for public transit. Although Chicago-area transit agencies backed off a threat to hike fares and cut routes without state money, transit funding is still up in the air as Democrats fight in Springfield.
But instead of routing Republicans, the Democrats are fighting among themselves in a very nasty and public way.
Their bickering means many of the most pressing issues to come before the General Assembly are still up in the air.
The bulk of the annual budget is done, but new funding for schools is on hold, the state is in jeopardy of losing federal transportation money and cash-starved public transit agencies in the Chicago area are threatening to hike bus and rail fares and to cut routes.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who isn't afraid to use his hefty campaign chest to promote his bold liberal ideas or to savage political opponents, has focused his fire on veteran House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, a Chicago ward boss widely regarded as Illinois' premier political tactician.
Madigan, who's led a legislative chamber longer than any currently serving leader in the nation, humiliated the governor in May by orchestrating a 107-0 defeat of Blagojevich's idea to fund a universal health care proposal with a business tax. In response, the governor repeatedly called Madigan, the state Democratic Party chair, a "right-wing Republican."
Blagojevich then vetoed millions of dollars for projects backed by Madigan's caucus and even sued Madigan and his staff twice, claiming they improperly ran the House.
The third Democratic leader, Senate President Emil Jones Jr., has played both sides. Long in Madigan's shadow, Jones allied himself most often with the governor. He booted a Madigan loyalist from his leadership team and even used an obscure procedure to scuttle a Madigan-backed electric rate relief bill on the Senate floor, just moments after it appeared to pass.
Then, he joined Madigan and GOP legislative leaders in passing a relatively scaled-back budget without the governor's input. Jones later backed the governor's vetoes of House projects.
At its simplest, the breakdown is a policy dispute over how generous and how expensive state government should be. But other elements are at play, too. Insiders blame, among other things, the tribal nature of Chicago politics, vastly different governing philosophies and naked ambition.
"I've been there 26 years. This is my 14 th term, and I've never seen anything like it. Never ever. And what's so disappointing is the fact that Democrats are in control," said state Rep. Art Turner, a Chicago Democrat and a member of Madigan's leadership team.
Just how bad are things in Springfield?
- U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking senator on Capitol Hill and a veteran of many partisan battles, said on at least three separate occasions he'd rather negotiate a truce in Iraq than mediate the conflict in the Statehouse. He told The Associated Press , "I'd rather deal with the Sunnis and Shias than an open civil war. It's easier to figure out who your enemy is."
- When the governor ordered lawmakers to convene over the weekend in mid-August, Madigan told House members, "Don't come to Springfield." They didn't. Just 14 of the 118 representatives showed up on Saturday; on Sunday, there were only six. That action led to the first Blagojevich lawsuit.
- Most Statehouse regulars expect Madigan's daughter, two-term Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), to run for governor in the near future. Charles N. Wheeler III, a long-time Statehouse reporter and who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Springfield, speculated that Blagojevich "would like to cut the speaker off at the knees to try to eliminate (him) as a factor in the governor's race and hamstring Lisa (Madigan)."
Illinois isn't the only state in the throes of a high-stakes budget standoff. Wisconsin lawmakers are now debating whether and how to greatly expand health insurance coverage, while Michigan legislators are trying to jumpstart the state's moribund economy at a time when revenues are falling.
But for drama, the Oscar goes to Illinois.
The theatrics started when Blagojevich, fresh off his re-election victory, proposed a new $7 billion tax hike on businesses to boost funding for schools, shore up the state's pensions and pay for universal health care.
Businesses immediately assailed the plan, but the governor stuck to his guns. He told teachers in March, "It will be Armageddon, but we are on the side of the Lord, and we will prevail."
But even after a bus tour by the governor to drum up popular support, Blagojevich's idea crashed in the state Capitol.
Madigan scheduled a test vote for the concept in the House in May. Faced with the prospect of an overwhelming defeat, the governor told his supporters to vote against it, supposedly to give lawmakers more time to study the proposal. The measure failed 107-0.
When the governor tried to save face by pushing a similar measure in the Senate in early July, it failed by one vote, because eight of the chamber's 37 Democrats refused to support it. One of the holdouts, Sen. Mike Jacobs (D), claimed Blagojevich threatened his political career in a private meeting if he didn't back the bill. Blagojevich's office repeatedly disputed Jacobs' claims to reporters.
"If this governor would have been in East Moline, Ill., at one of my local taverns, I would have kicked his tail end," Jacobs said.
Things only got worse. Later that week, Blagojevich tried to keep lawmakers in Springfield over the weekend, even though the governor's own attendance in the state capital is notoriously spotty.
Two angry Republicans discussed the idea of impeaching the governor on the House floor, although GOP leaders quickly distanced themselves from the remarks.
That afternoon, Madigan invited all lawmakers from the House and Senate to sit in on a meeting between the governor and the legislative leaders at the Executive Mansion, even though those discussions are traditionally held behind closed doors so the leaders can craft agreements with frank horse-trading.
When roughly 60 lawmakers showed up, Blagojevich accused Madigan of acting like a Republican, and the speaker told the governor to stop the personal attacks.
Eventually, the Democratic and GOP legislative leaders crafted a budget agreement without the governor's help. It passed both chambers with a veto-proof majority, with the understanding that lawmakers would override whatever changes the governor made.
But Jones, the Senate president, backed away from the deal after Blagojevich cut $463 million in spending, much of it pet projects of the House Democrats. Jones said he wouldn't let the Senate override the cuts. He accused Madigan of interfering with a Senate vote on another issue, which, he said, nullified their agreement.
The governor said he would use his executive authority to use the money he vetoed on health-related projects .
Madigan is trying to put pressure on Jones to let the Senate vote on the cuts. The House is holding 19 hearings over the next few weeks to highlight the impact of the vetoes, which include money for health care, bridges and flood control.
The House bought itself more time to rally opposition to the cuts using a procedural tactic that led to the second Blagojevich lawsuit. Now, the House is scheduled to vote on Blagojevich's vetoes in early October.
As the spring session, which was slated to end May 31, extends into fall, state Sen. John Millner (R) said he isn't hopeful that there will be a resolution soon. But he said the ongoing fighting has increased Madigan's standing in the Legislature. Even House Republicans are looking to Madigan for leadership, he said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Terry Link, the head of a county Democratic organization in Chicago's northern suburbs, said voters would judge lawmakers by the results they achieved, not by the antics of the session.