Illnois budget talks give way to series ofpolitical stunts

Monday, July 16, 2007

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Putting together the Illinois state budget is usually a dull mixture of number-crunching and painstaking negotiations. Not this year.

State leaders, notably Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, have transformed it into a series of stunts designed to embarrass and pressure one another.

The governor argues about the timing of House sessions. The speaker drags dozens of lawmakers to budget meetings. The governor challenges the House on gun control. The speaker hand-delivers letters to the governor's Senate allies.

Despite the fireworks, there's no sign of movement toward a budget deal. Officials haven't even agreed on the size of the shortfall they face, a vital step in deciding how to fill the hole and whether to add new programs.

The result of the gamesmanship could have a huge effect on Illinois residents' health care, schools and taxes for years to come. It also will establish the direction of Blagojevich's second term.

Some lawmakers see the unorthodox tactics as attempts to shake things up at the Capitol, where the situation hasn't changed since May.

"I think it's frustration," said Rep. Kurt Granberg, D-Carlyle. "People are looking for any way to break the deadlock, so they're trying to exhaust all their options, to change the dynamic of what's going on."

Democrat vs. Democrat

What's going on is that Blagojevich and Senate President Jones, both Chicago Democrats, have joined forces to seek new money for education and health care. They've proposed a $5 billion mixture of business taxes and gambling expansion to pay for it.

But they haven't been able to round up enough Senate support to pass most of the proposals. And Madigan says even if they were sent over to the House, they would fail there. He favors a budget increase of roughly $1 billion, using natural revenue growth and ending some tax breaks for businesses.

Blagojevich and Madigan describe their stunts as legitimate, even necessary. Some, however, seem counterproductive.

Take Blagojevich's public demand that the House vote on legislation to limit the size of ammunition clips.

The demand was widely seen as a diversion and an attempt to sow discord among House Democrats. Even the measure's sponsor said it was a bad idea.

Blagojevich defends his decision as a good use of lawmakers' time. He denied it makes angry lawmakers less likely to support his health plan.

'Shackled together'

Officials have clashed not only on the budget but on holding budget talks.

Madigan refused to meet with Blagojevich for more than two months after the governor released his budget proposal.

Later, when talks had stalled, Madigan invited the entire House to accompany him to the governor's office to monitor negotiations.

Blagojevich has taken to calling Madigan, who heads the Illinois Democratic Party, a "George Bush Republican" who is scheming with Republican lawmakers to block action on schools and health care.

Not to be outdone, Madigan took the unusual step of making personal visits to Democratic state senators -- ones Blagojevich hopes to keep on his side -- to deliver letters pointing out how much Chicago schools would benefit from the House budget plan.

Rep. Eddie Washington, D-Waukegan, is confident the two will find some way to work together sooner or later.

"They have to," he said. "It's almost like being shackled together. Nobody can go a different direction. You've got to be going the same direction eventually."

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