Several factors working against extended special session

Doug Finke

When state lawmakers returned to Springfield last July for a special session, it took another five weeks to finally pass a budget.

A year later, they’re coming back again to deal with unresolved budget matters.

But area lawmakers don’t expect another long, hot summer in Springfield, unless Gov. Rod Blagojevich does the unexpected and vetoes the entire spending plan they passed at the end of May.

“I’m betting on two days,” Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, said Monday. “I think we take those votes, and it goes right back to the governor.”

Poe is referring to bills now pending in the House that Blagojevich said would help plug what he calls a $2 billion hole in the $59 billion budget passed by the General Assembly.

The Senate has already approved the bills. Blagojevich called lawmakers back into special session Wednesday and Thursday in hopes of forcing the House to also approve them. Poe and many other lawmakers do not think that will happen, leaving Blagojevich to implement what he has threatened will be severe cuts in state spending and personnel.

Instead, Blagojevich wants the House to approve a $34 billion public works construction program and give him authorization to take $530 million out of restricted state funds, both of which will help close the budget gap.

“I don’t think this is really about a budget,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, who helped draft the spending plan. “In my view, it’s about voting again on a capital bill.”

Hannig doesn’t think that bill will pass the House, and that the special sessions will not extend beyond this week.

In 2007, lawmakers returned to Springfield July 5 for the first in a series of special sessions called by Blagojevich about the state budget. The governor and lawmakers were deadlocked for weeks before a budget was finally passed Aug. 10, nearly a month and a half into the fiscal year.

However, there are a number of differences between last year and this year that work against another protracted overtime session.

Election year

“The fact that there’s an election (Nov. 4) I think guarantees that they are going to do something and get out of town,” said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.  “The perception is that the mess of state government is the Democrats’ fault. It’s harder to make the case that more Democrats are better if there is a story day after day that there is no budget.”

The issue cuts the same for Senate Democrats as House Democrats, Redfield said, giving Blagojevich no way to play one chamber against the other.

“I think the last thing anybody wants is to have a long, drawn-out affair during a campaign year,” said Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg.

Pay raises

The House rejected 11 percent pay raises recommended by the Compensation Review Board, but the Senate hasn’t acted yet. Under the complicated rules of legislative pay raises, if the Senate meets in session four more days without rejecting the raises, they go into effect automatically.  Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, is believed to want the raise, but not have it take effect until after the November election.

“The criteria for us not being in session four days is all about President Jones and the pay raise,” said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield. “I absolutely believe if we are in four days, (Jones) will be forced to allow that to come up for a vote and it will be rejected.”

Forcing that issue, Bomke said, will cause Blagojevich to alienate his only reliable ally among the top leaders in the General Assembly.

Jones spokeswoman Cindy Davidsmeyer said she did not want to engage in “hypothetical” discussions about the pay raise issue.

“We’re scheduled to be in session two days,” she said. “Supposedly, we have four days to act.  That gives us plenty of time to act on the pay raise.”

Temporary budget

When it became obvious last year that lawmakers were deadlocked on a fiscal 2008 budget for the state, they approved a temporary spending plan that kept state government operating through July. At the same time, it took pressure off of Blagojevich and lawmakers to come to a quick resolution on a permanent spending plan.

“Last year when we passed that one-month budget, it gave us the luxury of posturing for another month,” Brauer said. “I don’t think we’ll have that this year. It’s going to be a short two days, and we’re done.”

Hannig said a budget agreement came together in August because lawmakers refused to pass another one-month budget, even though Blagojevich urged them to do that.

Weakend Governor

After Blagojevich called this week’s special session. Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, renewed his call for the House to investigate whether Blagojevich should be impeached. That call will grow louder if lawmakers are stuck in Springfield for another extended summer stay.

Redfield said the conviction of Blagojevich friend and fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko and ongoing federal investigations into the administration leaves Blagojevich politically weaker than he was a year ago.

“The Rezko thing makes people less afraid of him,” Redfield said. “He’s losing leverage. I think he’s stuck just making a PR splash out of this.”

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or