G-Rod the big loser


No governor ever gets everything he wants in a budget. But this year’s budget agreement reflects what appears to be the greatest expansion of legislative power in decades. Governor Rod Blagojevich had to give up a lot during the two-month overtime session, and he didn’t get much in return.

Governors are usually given plenty of latitude in their budgets. A quick handshake with the legislative leaders and that was that. Everyone understood that the governor would have some wiggle room with the deal, but they trusted him to keep most of his promises. This time around, the governor was forced to sign about 50 so-called "memorandums of understanding" (MoU’s in Statehouse parlance) because legislators just didn’t believe he would follow through on his commitments.

The governor’s office attempted to downplay the significance of the MoU’s, even blaming "legislative pork" projects for many of them, but there is little doubt that he has tied his own hands this year and may have set an unpleasant precedent for future governors.

The MoU’s covered dozens of topics ranging from not requiring universities to set aside some of their state funds to not reducing funding for any agreed appropriations. After last year, when the governor threatened to unilaterally slash funding for all constitutional officers after the budget deal was done, legislators wanted to make sure he didn’t try the same thing again.

And after threatening to close two state prisons and implying that he’d like to close a mental health facility in Tinley Park, the legislative leaders demanded that he sign an MoU that promised he’d sign a bill to create a new Facilities Closure Commission. From now on, if the chief administrative officer of the state wants to shut down a state facility, he’ll have to first run it by the Commission.

"These are face-saving measures that some of the leaders needed in order to invest more money in education and health care," the governor’s spokesperson, Cheryle Jackson, told the Rockford Register-Star.

Wrong. Here are just a few reasons:

• The new powers given to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules provide the Legislature with a huge weapon to check the governor’s previously awesome authority to run his administration. In the past, it was immensely difficult to stop a new administrative rule.

Rulemaking authority has been almost equal to, and in some cases has exceeded, legislative powers of passing bills. The importance of that rulemaking power can’t be overstated. Essentially, the governor could rewrite state laws to his own liking through the way he chose to implement them. Now, all it will take is a vote of eight out of the twelve JCAR members and a proposed rule is just about dead. That’s a big thing.

• Two new revolving funds were created to make sure that state and federal money spent on payroll and facilities actually equals the amount required for those purposes. For decades, governors have squirreled away cash in vacant budgetary line items and then used the money for other purposes.

• The state’s ability to borrow money was reined in hard. The governor has been severely criticized for his overreliance on debt, and his too-cute-by-half proposals to put off significant debt payments until long after he will be out of office. So, now, the ability of future governors to borrow money has been severely restrained.

• The state’s experiment with selling public property has been drastically curtailed. A long section of state law allowing the governor to sell off or enter into lease purchase agreements for places like the Thompson Center was deleted.

• The governor’s authority to lay off merit compensation employees (workers not covered under union contracts or protected by civil service laws) was also curtailed. Merit comp workers were given new rights to jobs in their immediate areas, rather than allow the administration to force the workers to move far from their homes to find new positions.

During the months-long budget negotiations, just about everyone at the table complained that the governor would agree to something and then renege the very next day, or maybe even later the same day. His word could not be trusted, and he paid dearly for that character flaw. Yes, he got much of what he wanted on education and healthcare spending, but those were the easy things and, truth be told, had the support of most of the legislative leaders. On everything else, he lost. Bad.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.