NEWS

Doug Finke: Leaders miss chance to act like adults ... again

Doug Finke

*Just after the Illinois House provided the final votes on the mass transit funding bill, House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN, D-Chicago, held a rare news conference and offered advice to Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH.

“Stand up, show some political courage and sign this bill,” Madigan said.

The deal is, the bill raises money for Chicago-area mass transit through a small sales tax increase to be levied in the Chicago area. Blagojevich, of course, campaigned on a platform that said no increase in the income or sales taxes. By signing the bill, he’ll leave himself open to charges of reneging on a campaign promise.

That’s just what happened after Blagojevich said he would accept the tax hike. Through a spokesman, Madigan said he wanted to “congratulate the governor on breaking his campaign promise.”

At first, this might seem unfair -- call for the governor to accept the bill, and then accuse him of breaking a campaign promise when he does. But you have to wonder if the response might have been different had Blagojevich not once again played his games.

Instead of simply signing the bill, Blagojevich changed it to give free bus rides to seniors. Now the General Assembly has to come back to Springfield again to deal with that issue before the bill becomes law.

Blagojevich said he came up with the idea before Thanksgiving. That means there was plenty of time to add the free bus rides to the bill before the General Assembly voted on it. Instead, Blagojevich waited until after the bill passed to say he wanted the change.

There was a chance here for everyone to behave more or less like statesmen instead of the feuding family they’ve resembled all year. It passed.

*A couple of lawmakers offered escape routes for Blagojevich to take in connection with whether he is breaking a campaign promise by endorsing the sales tax hike.

Sen. JOHN CULLERTON, D-Chicago, said he understood the governor’s campaign pledge to mean no statewide increase in the sales or income tax. Since the mass transit bill involves only a regional sales tax hike, the governor isn’t breaking a promise.

That’s good, but an even better one came from Sen. RICKEY HENDON, D-Chicago, who said Blagojevich is not breaking a promise at all.

“You don’t change your mind, you just make a proper adjustment for the situation at the time,” Hendon said.

*While lawmakers were in town last week, a large, flat-screen television and loudspeakers were set up outside Blagojevich’s office. Throughout the day, a tape played of mass transit riders offering testimony about what buses and trains mean to them. The audio was turned up to about 12. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Blade Runner” (where pedestrians on city streets are bombarded with video and audio advertisements), you’ve got a picture of the overall effect. “Max Headroom” was also mentioned.

It was all part of the administration’s efforts to show lawmakers how important mass transit is. The people were interviewed at an El stop at the Thompson Center in Chicago. Blagojevich spokeswoman ABBY OTTENHOFF said state equipment was used to tape the interviews, which were conducted by BOB ARYA and DICK KAY. Arya is on the state payroll as an advisor to Blagojevich. Kay, a former Chicago TV reporter, is on contract, so he is paid based on the amount of work he does. Last year, he made $58,700.

The administration may think it helped make the case to pass a mass transit bill. Based on comments we heard, it was viewed more as a joke.

*In the middle of discussing free bus rides for seniors with reporters, Blagojevich launched into one of his famous rambling anecdotes to illustrate a point. It had to do with when he was a kid and how kids under 12 paid cheaper fares to ride the bus.

“I was generally a little bit short for my height,” Blagojevich said in a YOGI BERRA moment.

Anyway, Blagojevich said when he was 14 he would scrunch down a little so that he could pass for a 12-year-old and thus pay less for his bus rides.

“I’m sure some of the reporters are going to write big headlines about my lack of ethics,” Blagojevich said.

Nah, we don’t have to dredge up stuff that happened 40 years ago to do that. There’s plenty going on right now.

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