Last week's umpteenth special legislative session had a lot more to do with giving the Senate an opportunity to kill off the legislative pay raises than coming up with education funding reform ideas or passing a capital construction plan.
The official reason the General Assembly was brought back to town last Tuesday was to deal with education funding reform, but that was a farce on its face. Gov. Rod Blagojevich offered up no plans of his own. Blagojevich said he called the special session at the behest of the Legislative Black Caucus, but didn't bother to reach out to African-Americans at all. The governor, who said this month that he sometimes considers himself to be the state's first African-American governor, instead spent the day at the Illinois State Fair's "Auction of Champions."
That failure to communicate and to show his face brought harsh words from Rev. Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), an education funding reform advocate who is sounding more like a possible gubernatorial candidate with each passing day.
"When the governor calls a special session, the governor is supposed to have an agenda," Meeks told reporters yesterday. The Senator also quipped that the governor had put "cows before kids," with his decision to attend the animal auction. Blagojevich pledged to put $2 billion into education funding during his 2006 reelection campaign, which prompted Meeks to drop out of the race. It's now payback time.
But early last week, there was little talk about education and much talk about the pay raise. It's actually been that way throughout the summer. Editorials have lambasted Senate President Emil Jones for refusing to call a vote to reject the raises during the spring session and for his... um... unfortunate choice of words regarding the issue. Jones had joked with reporters that he needed a pay raise and food stamps in the final days of the spring session, and those remarks have been repeated ad nauseum for months.
The governor's special session call was immediately seized upon by most of the state's news media as a prime opportunity to reject the raises, especially since many believed that the raises would kick in last week. Illinois law requires both chambers to reject the raises within 30 session days or they automatically take effect. It's been assumed for weeks that Jones has wanted to quietly allow the raises to take effect after the November elections, but it has become clear that there would be nothing "quiet" about this tactic.
Instead, the pay raise issue managed to break through all the clutter and resonate clearly with voters. One suburban Democratic Senator claimed he was receiving ten calls an hour early last week from his constituents about the raises. The raises had essentially become the chief symbol in the voters' minds for all the intractable Statehouse problems.
Usually, the public tends not to notice much of what goes on in Springfield, but the governor's horrible poll numbers and various state crises have made voters sit up and take notice. Last year's skyrocketing electric rates exploded Downstate voter anger, and the mass transit meltdown caught Chicago-area voters' attention, and not in a good way. The intransigence on the capital construction plan has prompted much voter disgust. But this pay raise thing was working against the legislative Democrats throughout the state in a way that those other hot-button issues didn't even approach.
Democratic polling was apparently showing that the raises were causing significant problems for some Senate incumbents. The Democrats in both chambers believed earlier this year that they could do just about anything they wanted and not be harmed at the polls because of Barack Obama's presence on the ballot. But that isn't turning out to be the case, mainly because the pay raise issue has become such a potent and devastatingly simple rallying cry for critics of the current system.
Freshman Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora) was said to be particularly vulnerable on this issue. Senate President Jones had hoped to easily hold all his Democratic seats this year and even add to his super majority, but the pay raises were apparently mucking up the works.
Clearly, something had to be done, and no matter how much Jones and some of his members wanted those raises, they weren't going to be able to grab that cash.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.