Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Blagojevich a control freak with state budget

When Gov. Rod Blagojevich gives his budget address Wednesday, he’s going to elicit a combination of emotions – boredom and anger.

Legislators, lobbyists and other Statehouse Scene observers are going to struggle to stay awake due to the governor’s whiny voice and less-than-exciting public speaking skills. But those same people are going to enter the Illinois House chambers for the speech totally upset.

BLAGOJEVICH, IN HIS desire to exert complete oversight of the process of presenting a budget proposal for the upcoming Illinois government fiscal year, is showing himself to be a control freak.

That kind of attitude is going to mess with the attitudes of the people the governor will ultimately need to approve a state budget. So we can forget about any notion that lawmakers will “play nice” this year and not do anything as embarrassing as last year’s behavior – where a funding resolution for Chicago mass transit dragged into the early weeks of this year.

What has Statehouse people upset is the idea that Blagojevich is being extra secretive about the details of the government spending plan he will present Wednesday at noon.

The mood among state legislators toward Gov. Rod Blagojevich is as dark as the skies above the Statehouse in this 90-year-old postcard image of the Illinois capitol.

Gubernatorial aides, particularly those who work with the Bureau of the Budget, have spent the past few months putting together a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that would in theory allow Illinois government to not be deeper in debt on June 30, 2009.

THEIR WORK CULMINATES with the governor’s budget address, which is one of the ceremonial rituals that defines the Statehouse Scene. After Wednesday, the budget process gets handed off to the General Assembly, which will spend the next few months reviewing and amending a budget plan until taking a final vote before adjourning for the summer.

The governor’s budget address is one of the ceremonial moments of the state government academic year. It’s almost like Homecoming at a college campus, where a lot of people come out of the woodwork to see what the old place looks like. Wednesday in Springfield will be a madhouse with politicos and their observers all making sure to be at the Statehouse so they can see for themselves just what Blagojevich has in mind.

To accommodate those people with differing interests, the governor’s staff usually conducts briefings the day before the budget address to provide a summary of what is in the spending plan.

The General Assembly’s leaders and the state constitutional officers (attorney general, secretary of state, etc.) all are given a presentation, and they in turn provide a review for their key aides.

IN THE CASE of the state Legislature’s members, they receive briefings from their respective partisan leaders, which means Republican senators and representatives are told of all the budget’s shortcomings, and the Democrats in theory are told of its strengths.

Even reporters who work regularly at the Statehouse are given a pair of briefings. From my experience covering state government under governors James R. Thompson, Jim Edgar and George H. Ryan, one briefing would occur in the afternoon – with the state budget director prepared to take detailed questions about the governor’s spending priorities.

The second briefing would come in the evening, and would be held by the governor himself to allow him the chance to influence the way reporters perceived the budget.

Under the agreement, reporters would not actually write or broadcast anything about the budget proposal until the governor’s budget address began. The advantage to reporters is they had something of a clue as to what was in the several-hundreds-of-pages budget book and could write a more intelligent story or two after the afternoon budget speech.

IT ALSO MEANT that an enterprising reporter could have the bulk of the story written, and could spend their after-speech time gaining intelligent reaction to the spending plan.

What made reactions somewhat intelligent was that lawmakers who were commenting on the proposal actually had an idea what was in the budget even before the speech began. They actually knew what they were talking about.

Not this year. The budgetary briefings are being held in the final hours of Wednesday morning just prior to the speech. Blagojevich himself is not participating. With that little lead time, the concept of briefings that are worth anything is a joke.

Blagojevich, as I said before, is being a control freak.

HE’S NOT ALLOWING anyone outside of his immediate circle to know what is in the Illinois government spending proposal until the absolute last possible minute. I would imagine any of his staff who actually talked to a legislator, lobbyist or reporter would wind up losing his or her job.

It also means Blagojevich is needlessly ticking off the Legislature, which in theory is controlled by his politically partisan allies. A Democrat-run Illinois House and state Senate ought to be prepared to give Chicago Democrat Blagojevich whatever he wants.

Fat chance. The Chicago White Sox have a better chance this year of winning the World Series than Blagojevich has of achieving détente with the General Assembly.

I can’t understand why Blagojevich, who has threatened to pull similar tactics in the past, is so willing to antagonize the pols, unless he seriously believes the Illinois electorate is so stupid that they will automatically believe “it’s the Legislature’s fault” for whatever problems arise in state government this spring.

IT IS BECAUSE of moments like this that I find it ridiculous when people complain Chicago Democrats are taking over Illinois politics and will run everything with strong-arm tactics.

“The Three Stooges” is a more appropriate image. The constant tensions and backstabbing are going to prevent any politically partisan agenda from being imposed on the people of Illinois.

In fact, the only reason Blagojevich may get away with this is because the current status of the Republican Party in Illinois is brain-dead. There are no signs the GOP in Illinois will be able to put together a credible candidate to challenge the second-term governor who has made it clear he expects to be elected to Term Number Three come the 2010 elections.

So if you are one of those people who feel a need to watch the broadcasts of the budget address that likely will air on public television stations across Illinois, keep in mind that the governor is not just a bumbling speaker who historically takes up to two hours to deliver the same type of speech that his predecessors could give in 40 minutes.

HE’S A CONNIVING politico who is facing a potentially angry mob.

Because he’s governor, he thinks he can get away with it. There’s just one lesson Blagojevich should heed, and it comes from Illinois political history.

In their book “The Glory and the Tragedy,” former Statehouse reporters Taylor Pensoneau and Bob Ellis wrote that former Gov. Dan Walker pulled the exact same stunt – nobody was allowed to see his first budget proposal until he literally started speaking for his first budget address in 1973.

WALKER, WHO HAD gone through a tenuous campaign against the Democratic organization in Chicago to become Illinois governor, cemented a reputation among his alleged political allies as a political pain in the derriere.

His budget stunt was just one of several reasons that built up into the Democratic Party challenging his desire for re-election in 1976. Even though the challenge ultimately resulted in a Republican winning that election cycle and starting a streak of 26 years with GOP governors, many Democrats of that era thought that dumping Dan Walker made the elections that year a complete success.

If he’s not careful, Rod Blagojevich could find himself in the same position two years from now.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Illinois Republicans are not expecting anything positive to come ( from Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s budget address Wednesday at noon.

Blagojevich’s Drop Dead speech/budget address to the General Assembly ( can be viewed live in Chicago on WTTW-TV, Ch. 11. Clips are likely to be archived at the Illinois Channel’s website ( for future viewing.

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