September saw Illinois lawmakers move into their fourth month of overtime in a budget battle that has included a lawsuit filed by the governor against the Speaker of the House, almost $500 million in vetoes that critics say were brazenly political, and the defeat of a huge tax hike to fund mass transit in Chicago and the suburbs.
These developments have occurred even though lawmakers in August approved a $59 billion budget. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) immediately repudiated the budget and called for lawmakers to pass a one-month budget until they could adopt a fiscal year budget more to his liking.
A few days later he signed the budget but vetoed almost $500 million of spending and moved the money into state health plans, bringing denunciations from lawmakers who say he cannot spend hundreds of millions of dollars without legislative approval. A centerpiece of Blagojevich’s budget demands is the creation of a multibillion-dollar health insurance program for the state.
“I think if this were happening in Blagojevich’s first term, he wouldn’t have been reelected [in 2006],” said state Sen. Bill Petersen (R-Buffalo Grove). “The only reason he won was he had more money [than his Republican challenger] and was able to recruit Downstate voters, now much to their regret.”
The governor and lawmakers have done little to hide their contempt for each other. Blagojevich has called them into special session without any legislative proposals to consider, lawmakers have stayed home rather than obey the calls, and insults have flown.
Speaking of Blagojevich’s vetoes, state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) told Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, “He blatantly rewards his friends and punishes his enemies. He doesn’t even have enough shame to try to disguise it. This is the most ham-handed, obvious attempt I’ve ever seen to buy votes in the General Assembly.”
Blagojevich vetoed projects desired by lawmakers who have challenged him, even though most of the lawmakers are fellow Democrats. In the Senate, where President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) backs some of the governor’s initiatives and vowed to block any attempt to override his vetoes, lawmakers saw their spending projects untouched by the veto pen.
“What Blagojevich has done here violates the spirit of the bribery statutes,” Dillard told Zorn.
Governor vs. Speaker
Meanwhile, the governor’s lawsuit, filed at the end of August, accuses House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) of engaging in a “series of unauthorized and escalating acts aimed at eradicating the governor’s constitutional and statutory powers” by allowing lawmakers to stay home rather than attend special sessions.
Blagojevich did not sue Jones, even though most senators also have stayed away from the special sessions.
Transit Tax Hike Defeated
Disagreements between the governor and lawmakers also contributed to the defeat in early September of a tax package to hike funding for Chicago-area mass-transit systems.
Madigan and other Chicago Democrats provided most of the votes for a tripling of the transit portion of the Regional Transportation Authority sales tax from .25 percent to .75 percent. The measure fell 10 votes short of the 71 needed in the House for approval in an overtime session.
Blagojevich has vowed to veto sales or income tax hikes. He said he prefers to close “corporate tax loopholes” to provide extra funding for the Chicago Transit Authority and suburban rail and bus services.
The mass transit services say they will need to cut services and hike fares unless the state gives them additional subsidies.
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.