Gov. Rod Blagojevich made a last-minute attempt last week to at least show he was trying to get the hopelessly stalled budget negotiations back on track. Blagojevich, who has tried harder to avoid blame for the current overtime session than to actually negotiate in good faith, walked into House Speaker Michael Madigan's office unannounced last week in what was supposed to be a dramatic gesture of goodwill and harmony among Democrats.
But it was too little, too late. Madigan hasn't exactly been negotiating in good faith, either, and he reportedly offered up no realistic alternatives during the brief thirty-minute confab. Blagojevich had a smile on his face as he left the Speaker's office, but it was clear from talking to him that he had run into a brick wall. The governor also refused to back off from his ambitious, multi-billion dollar health insurance plan, which has caused much of the rancor at the Statehouse.
The simple truth is that very few legislators in the General Assembly have ever campaigned on providing universal health insurance, which is usually considered a federal issue. Many, including Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, go so far as to say that universal insurance ought to be a solely federal issue.
Late last week, Daley finally urged Blagojevich to back off his health care proposals. "You canÕt do [universal health insurance] city by city, county by county or state by state. You wish you could, but you couldnÕt. Because say if I have 500 employees... Now they come along and say, 'IÕm gonna charge you extra to give everybody health care.' Well, why should I be in the state of Illinois? IÕll go someplace else."
While the vast majority haven't campaigned on universal health insurance, most legislators have been campaigning for school funding reform and infrastructure development for the past twenty years or more. As a result, the public and the politicians are far more familiar and comfortable with those concepts, and they were super-ripe for passage this year.
Instead, what the governor did was essentially attempt to conjure a gigantic, expensive issue from scratch, gin up a groundswell of support statewide and ram it through the legislature in three and a half months, along with billions of dollars for education funding reform and infrastructure development. So far, he has failed on all counts. That sort of thing just doesn't happen here, or in any other democracy for that matter.
The bottom line is there simply isn't the will to increase state revenues enough to do all three things - education, infrastructure and health insurance - and do them right. Blagojevich's disastrous gross receipts tax proposal poisoned the well even further against tax hikes by activating the business community like it has never been before and calling enormous attention to the General Assembly amongst an electorate that usually tends to ignore the body. He ended up spooking legislators but good.
The governor has a right to propose whatever he wants, but he should have at least laid some groundwork during his campaign last year for such a massive expansion of government. If he had, he could have claimed some sort of mandate this spring, even with his less than 50 percent showing at the polls.
Instead, he soft-pedaled everything during the campaign by saying he wanted to build on his relatively minor health insurance accomplishments from his first term. It was all non-threatening and benign. But his high-dollar Illinois Covered plan has simply been too much of a shock to the political body. The fact that it was essentially an empty press release bill that delegated most details to the administrative rule-making process also doomed it from the start. Legislators simply didn't trust the governor to follow through in a fiscally responsible manner.
And now they're all stuck.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com