Doug Finke: Rough couple of weeks ahead for governor

Doug Finke

*House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN’s series of hearings on Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH’s budget cuts got under way last week. It promises to be a rough couple of weeks for our PR-conscious governor.

If you recall, Blagojevich whacked funds for pet projects that were added to the budget by House Democrats. Blagojevich said the money was “pork” and “special interest spending.”

The hearings are being held in areas represented by House Democrats. That means there will be people ready to testify who were going to get money from their local representatives, but who won’t now, thanks to the governor.

At the first hearing in Decatur, the mayor of Oreana complained that he lost money for a drinking water pipeline project. The mayor of Clinton said he lost money to update the firehouse. The Mount Zion mayor said money was lost to complete a highway bypass project. The message was that Blagojevich didn’t cut pork, but rather money for legitimate projects.

Blagojevich’s office is trying to respond. So far, though, answers have been pretty feeble. At the Decatur hearing, the response was that the cut money is needed for the governor’s expanded health care program and that lawmakers are to blame for not raising the taxes that Blagojevich wanted raised.

Yeah, that’ll work. People and organizations who were going to get money from the budget will suddenly blame the lawmakers who got it for them, rather than the governor who cut it.

In Pekin the next day, the governor’s office shifted gears. Spokespeople said the money had to be cut to balance the budget. But Blagojevich wants to spend the money anyway on his health plan, so that’s a crock, too.

The hearings will go on for another two weeks. Each one will draw media attention and will focus on how the reductions affected legitimate programs and projects, not pork. Like we said, it won’t be a fun time for the governor.

*It’s his way or the highway -- again.

Blagojevich wants to help mass transit in the Chicago area, but apparently it has to be done his way, like most everything else in state government.

The short version is that mass transit in the metropolitan Chicago area desperately needs an infusion of new cash. Without it, fares will be hiked, and services cut. And don’t say it’s Chicago and we don’t care. The state’s economy needs a healthy Chicago economy, which needs a healthy mass transit system. Downstate can’t ignore that.

The General Assembly didn’t pass a mass transit bail-out bill, and today was the day fare hikes and service reductions were to go into effect. To forestall that, Blagojevich cooked up a deal last week to give the mass transit systems their entire state subsidy for the year right now. Doomsday has now been postponed until November 4. Blagojevich said that will give lawmakers time to come up with a bail-out plan.

Here’s the problem. There already is a mass transit bail-out plan. Negotiators worked long and hard to fashion a compromise that would raises the sales tax only in the Chicago area and hike the real estate transfer tax only in Chicago to raise money for mass transit. There are slightly different versions of the plan in the House and Senate, but the funding in both versions is the same.

Blagojevich, though, said he will veto the bill if it gets to his desk because it contains a sales tax hike, even one limited to a single part of the state. He wants an alternative, which is what he expects the General Assembly to pass in a few weeks, now that the pressure is off for quick action.

It’s the same game plan Blagojevich used on the budget. He wanted to buy time with temporary budgets, hoping he could bludgeon lawmakers into accepting his health care plan. That one didn’t work. We’ll see if this one does.

*First Blagojevich sued Madigan because the speaker would not have the House meet on the date and at the time ordered by the governor. Last week, Blagojevich sued House Clerk MARK MAHONEY for not completing paperwork on the budget cuts on time.

Look for this headline soon. “Blagojevich Sues House Pages. Guv Says Failure to Deliver Snacks Promptly Made Lawmakers Cranky, Killing Health Care Plan.” 

Doug Finke can be reached at (217)788-1527 or doug.finke@sj-r.com.