Blagojevich says state budget won't hurt taxpayers

Monday, April 14, 2003

CHICAGO -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich defended his new budget Sunday to a group that needed no convincing.

Speaking to a packed Salem Baptist Church -- the same place he visited his first Sunday in office -- Blagojevich received a hero's welcome as he reiterated his pledge not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly and working people.

"We still kept our promise," he said to loud applause in an appearance four days after he laid out how he planned to deal with the state's $5 billion budget deficit.

"We're not raising the income tax or sales tax," the governor declared. "We're spending more for schools, spending more for health care."

Blagojevich made his comments during a question-and-answer session with the Rev. James Meeks, the church's pastor and a state senator. Sitting in the pews a few feet away were several Democratic lawmakers, including Senate President Emil Jones of Chicago.

Blagojevich seemed to have good news for just about everyone in the church on the city's far South Side.

He promised a prescription drug plan, declaring, "This is a good year to be a senior citizen."

When Meeks asked him if he would sign a bill raising the minimum wage $1.35 an hour, Blagojevich said quickly, "I've got my pen right here."

Some of the loudest applause came when Blagojevich discussed his plan to add $209 million -- $250 per student -- for schools.

'Can't afford not to'

When asked if the state could afford to spend the money, Blagojevich responded, "We can't afford not to."

In the first budget address of his young administration, Blagojevich on Wednesday proposed borrowing $2 billion at low interest rates to pay the state's high-interest pension obligations, halting construction projects and making millions of dollars worth of administrative cuts.

On Sunday, Blagojevich said he was confident he could find and eliminate more wasteful state government spending. He also reiterated his desire to sell the James R. Thompson Center, the state government headquarters in Chicago, saying he thinks it could fetch $250 million.

Blagojevich also said the state could save more money if wealthy, successful people who sit on state boards simply donate their time. "Why not volunteer because we need that money for children?" he asked.

Those who listened to Blagojevich said they were encouraged by what they heard.

"I was very impressed that they weren't going to (balance the budget) from the bottom up," said Barbara Williams, 49, of nearby Calumet City. "Everything he said was geared toward helping the poor."

Alfreida Harris, 52, of Chicago agreed. "I think he said everything you needed to hear and everything we looked forward to hearing," she said.

But, like others, Harris also voiced a bit of skepticism.

"Now I hope he will be able to pull it off," she said.

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