The Good News Is that Illinois Government May Become More Responsible

Published August 20, 2007

This is good.

Illinois state government nearly shut down in early August because Gov. Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders in his own Democratic party failed to agree on a budget that was due July 1.

This is good because it’s better than approving billions of dollars of new spending, the main objective of which appears to be to build a legacy for a governor who cannot govern.

It’s good because it’s focusing attention on the state’s core obligations–things like public schools, roads and bridges, and payments to government employee pensions.

And it’s good because it’s also focusing attention on how the high and mighty in this state regard themselves–and disregard us.

We’ve learned, for instance, that Gov. Blagojevich had no problem charging taxpayers nearly $6,000 a day for a Chicago-Springfield air shuttle because he refuses to live in the governor’s mansion–a mansion with recent improvements that include a $1 million heated driveway that apparently goes unused. We’ve learned the governor thinks nothing of charging us $40,000 a day to order lawmakers into session, only to sit around and wait for legislative leaders to hammer out a budget.

We’ve learned the governor threatened to veto any budget that is out of balance or fails to provide huge increases in spending for his universal health care plan and other programs. Yet the governor himself submitted four budgets that were billions of dollars out of balance.

Comptroller Dan Hynes, a fellow Democrat, was so outraged after learning about the governor’s hypocritical veto threat that he issued a statement saying Blagojevich’s “hypocrisy knows no bounds.”

People are coming to understand some of the problems the state’s politicians have wrought–a tripling of general obligation debt (to about $22 billion) since Blagojevich took office in 2003, sluggish employment, and the worst-funded government pension system in the nation, to name a few.

During July, the state operated with a stop-gap one-month budget. August opened with no budget. Comptroller Hynes said he needed budget authority by August 8 to send out $170 million in school aid checks–and barely got it in time. If he had not received the last-minute authority, local school districts would have had to do short-term borrowing, dip into reserves or find other ways to operate.

State workers on disability also could have seen delays in receiving disability checks. Some state facilities also could have been closed.

All this is good, because citizens witnessed a spectacle that has brought calls for the governor’s impeachment or his electoral recall, the trading of insults between the governor and legislative leaders, the belated passage of a budget by the House and Senate, and mutiny by lawmakers against the governor.

Almost as soon as lawmakers approved a $59 billion budget on Aug. 10, Blagojevich ordered them to stay in session to add billions of dollars more spending for a universal health care program, among other things.

The weekend of Aug. 11-12 saw the special session open with 166 of the state’s 177 lawmakers at home. So much for the governor’s orders. So much for party unity. The governor is a Democrat and the House and Senate are comfortably in the hands of Democrats.

On Aug. 14, Blagojevich threatened to veto $500 million of spending in the new budget and redirect that money to state health care. Also, Speaker Madigan and other lawmakers challenged the governor’s authority to redirect the money without legislative approval.

How can citizens have any respect for lawmakers and a governor who have no respect for each other, and who treat the public treasury as their personal piggy bank? I think the answer is they can’t, and I think that’s good. The less respect we have for them, the less inclined we’ll be to rely on them.

Mixed in with these embarrassments, insults and arguments has been discussion about the fiscal realities that prevent government from being all things to all people. More Illinois politicians and the people they represent are starting to realize the state can barely handle its existing obligations, and that it is stupid to assume big new obligations. This realization may make lawmakers more cautious and responsible. And that would be a good development.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News, published by The Heartland Institute. An earlier version of this article appeared on the Chicago Daily Observer on Aug.9.