NEWS

Statehouse Insider: Never-ending government games

Doug Finke

And the never-ending games go on.

To briefly recap, the General Assembly in May took the bold step of passing a budget that spent about $2 billion more than the state has. Lawmakers said it was up to Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH to "manage" the budget so that everything evened out.

That's Statehouse jargon for "We don't want to make the cuts and take the heat. Let the governor do that."

Blagojevich did, whacking about $1.4 billion, cutting money for statewide officials, substance abuse programs, state human service agencies, parks and historic sites, among other things. All of a sudden, lawmakers decided maybe it wasn't such a good idea to let Blagojevich manage their mess, especially when the public started howling about parks and historic sites closing. Lawmakers scurried back to Springfield to fix the problem they helped create.

They passed a plan to rescind some of the cuts. Parks and historic sites can stay open, substance abuse programs will get some badly needed money, and more than 300 state workers won't lose their jobs.

To pay for this, they approved a plan to "sweep" more than $220 million from dozens of special state accounts.

There are literally hundreds of these funds where the state charges a special tax or fee and the money is supposed to be used for a related program. The road fund is an example. When you buy gasoline, you pay 19 cents a gallon to the state. The money is deposited in the road fund and is supposed to be used for road construction. (Please note: Lawmakers didn't raid the road fund this time).

Lawmakers passed both the spending and revenue bills and sent them to Blagojevich. Last week, Blagojevich signed the sweeps bill. This is where things get stupid.

The Blagojevich administration didn't raise any specific objections while the sweeps bill was working its way through the General Assembly. It was after the fact that it decided $50 million of the swept money actually may not be available because of court challenges, federal restrictions or because it is already committed to other expenses.

If the administration is correct, there won't be money to restore all of the cuts lawmakers thought they were fixing.

Blagojevich last week dumped the whole thing in the lap of Comptroller DAN HYNES - a potential gubernatorial challenger in 2010 - saying that as keeper of state accounts, it's his job to decide how much money is really available to spend. That means Hynes can be blamed when some of the cuts go on as planned.

Unfortunately for Blagojevich, Hynes actually reads legislation, and the sweeps bill doesn't give him that job.

So, it's back to Blagojevich. If he's serious about avoiding these cuts, he can do it before most of them are scheduled to take effect. Even if there are genuine problems with the sweeps bill, they can be fixed when lawmakers come back to Springfield in November.

If Blagojevich wants to continue his petulant mean streak, he can go ahead with the cuts. He'll probably do it in the name of fiscal prudence, saying he has no choice given the state's financial condition.

Imagine Blagojevich preaching fiscal prudence.

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Statewide officials responded to their budget cuts with hiring freezes, layoffs and furloughs.

Immediately after lawmakers voted to rescind the cuts, Hynes said he was going ahead with the ones in his office regardless. Basically, he said he didn't trust Blagojevich not to play games and didn't want to put his employees through a yo-yo of on-again, off-again, on-again cuts.

Looks like he made the right move.

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"He, like everybody else, should tell the truth," Blagojevich said Tuesday about friend and former adviser TONY REZKO, convicted on federal corruption charges and now reportedly singing to the feds about what he knows of state government corruption.

"I have nothing to fear but the truth." -- Blagojevich in a Freudian slip last summer.

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By the way, the Republicans found Blagojevich's little slip so amusing they deciding to memorialize it in a button that they were passing out at the Illinois State Fair.

It features a black and white picture of the governor holding his hands out like he is trying to fend away the news media. The quote is in one of those balloons you see in cartoon strips.

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