If there was any doubt that Governor Rod Blagojevich will use his dramatic new healthcare program for children as a core issue in his upcoming re-election campaign, a flier handed out to state employees last week made things perfectly clear.
The flier touts a rally to support the new initiative. The rally will be held Sunday afternoon, October 23rd at A. Finkl & Sons Co., a steel mill on Chicago's Northwest Side. Blagojevich kicked off his first campaign for governor at the mill, where his late father worked, used it as his election-night headquarters in 2002, and has returned there several times since to talk about his blue-collar roots and raise campaign funds.
Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed originally reported about the October 23rd rally late last month, asking in the piece whether the guv was "getting ready to kick off his re-election" because he was planning a massive 10,000 person event at the steel plant.
A spokesperson for the governor said last week that the rally will not be political, but the event will obviously be used to showcase the governor's heavy involvement in the healthcare issue - which voters routinely say is very high on their priority lists.
The rally will be held right before the first week of the fall veto session, when the governor hopes his new plan will be approved. The proposal, which will cover children in families earning too much to qualify for the state's KidCare Medicaid program, is co-sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones. It appears to be on the fast track to passage, although some Republican leaders have expressed strong reservations.
The insurance plan will be paid for by requiring most current Medicaid recipients to enter into a "primary care case management" plan. The shift will supposedly save the state $57 million next year, and $45 million of that would be used to pay for the new "All Kids" plan, according to the governor's office.
Providing more healthcare to the working poor has been a cornerstone of the governor's first term. Indeed, whenever he is attacked by Republicans, his spokesmen almost always spout the line that Blagojevich is much more concerned with "making health care available for 324,000 working adults and their children" (as campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco wrote several weeks ago in a guest column for my subscription newsletter) than with politics. But healthcare and politics have been intertwined in the Blagojevich administration since Day One, and the governor has now kicked it up a notch with this new "All Kids" plan.
The proposal specifically benefits people most often ignored by government programs, but highly prized by both political parties - middle class families. According to the governor's office, half of all uninsured children fall into the KidCare qualifications - families making less than $40,000 per year. Three-quarters of the rest, about 90,000 children, are in families making between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, which is where All Kids is targeted. And every year, more and more families lose their health insurance coverage as employers jettison the programs because of their high costs. Small business owners - one of the fastest growing demographics in the country - struggle to pay for insurance coverage because they don't qualify for large insurance "pools" which help lower costs.
Republicans who are opposed to the idea say the state shouldn't be starting a new healthcare program when it can't pay for its existing plans. The state is currently behind on payments to Medicaid providers by more than $1 billion.
The opposed Republicans also say they fear that uninsured families will flock to Illinois to obtain the coverage, or say that a family making $79,000 a year shouldn't be placed into government "welfare." But that could be a hard sell on the campaign trail next year, especially when the governor uses his gigantic campaign war chest and state funds to tout the new program, which will begin next summer (just in time for the campaign season). Two gubernatorial candidates, Sen. Bill Brady and Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, will have to vote on the plan this month.
Unless the Republicans can find a better angle, this appears to be pretty smart politics on the part of the governor. It probably won't immediately bolster his terribly sagging poll numbers all that much, but it will be an effective tool next fall.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.