Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie usually hangs back and lets others make news. Since getting the number two job in the House Democratic caucus in 1997, she hasn't been known for being way out front on major issues. And as far as I can remember, she's never once publicly criticized Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But that all changed last week when Currie gave an important speech to the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois blasting the governor, a fellow Democrat. She insisted that she he was only speaking for herself, not House Speaker Michael Madigan, but all of Madigan's top people were well aware of the contents of her address before she delivered it.
Currie's speech is a must-read for those of us who are fascinated by the slow-motion train wreck that is the 2007 legislative session.
Currie began her speech by saying Governor Blagojevich had delivered the "most audacious and far reaching budget address ever given by an Illinois governor." Blagojevich called for huge increases in education and health care spending, along with some incredibly large tax increases, which will eventually add up to about $8 billion a year in new revenues. The majority leader also heaped praise on Blagojevich, saying he possessed a "genuine desire to do good," and adding it would be "wrong to doubt" his sincerity.
With the niceties out of the way, Currie made it crystal clear that the Legislature will not "be rushed into making a mistake from which it could take the state decades to recover." And she warned the governor to not revert back to his old scapegoating habits from his often controversial first term.
"If our efforts to spend the time it takes to get it right this time lead him to accuse us of indifference to the suffering of our fellow citizens or to portray us as mere pawns of special interest organizations, he will have done his cause no good," Currie said, adding, "Proceeding at a deliberate, careful pace is not obstructionism. Taking our time to make sure we understand the details, grasp the implications and make decisions based on facts, not spin, is not obstructionism."
Most of the governor's top aides were in attendance that night, including his budget experts and his chief of staff, and they certainly couldn't help but notice that much of Currie's speech was aimed directly at them. "It's critical that he, his staff and his advocates engage the Legislature in a serious, straightforward and honest manner," the majority leader said. The governor hasn't exactly been known at the Statehouse for his openness or his willingness to tell the complete truth. Currie also criticized the governor's office for not bringing in House leaders or business people before unveiling his massive tax plans. "This is a very curious way to begin to attempt the most sweeping overhaul of state government in more than a generation," she said.
Currie has been the House Democrats' chief tax expert for years, and she announced Wednesday that she and House Revenue Committee Chairman John Bradley would hold hearings beginning this week to take a careful look at the governor's proposals. "At this point," Currie said, "I have more questions than answers."
Currie seemed to indicate that the gross receipts tax proposed by the governor was too high. She pointed out that corporations would have to pay about $500 million more than they currently do to bring them back up to the same level they were paying in 1980, while directly contrasting that with the governor's so-called "fairness" plan that raises $6.5 billion a year.
Much of the speech, however, was about process. "If he prefers to leverage public policy via press releases, vigils, protest marches, television advertisements and airplane fly-arounds, I don't think lawmakers will buy," Currie warned. "Demagoguery will not be well received by most members of the General Assembly."
Considering how much push-back the governor's gross receipts tax has generated in just a few weeks, Blagojevich would be plain stupid to forget about building public support and concentrate all his energies on the General Assembly. If he sat back passively and just worked behind the scenes, things could spiral out of control in a big hurry.
That being said, the meaning that I got out of Currie's speech is that the governor needs to grow up and finally learn that the bare-knuckles campaign game he loves so dearly is only part of the equation. She was absolutely right about that.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com