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With no one in charge, Illinois grinds to halt

The scandal involving Governor Blagojevich is delaying key budget decisions.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2008

Clinging to power: The scandal around Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich delayed a bond sale, costing the state $20 million in interest.

Frank Polich/Reuters



Illinois is facing a deficit of several billion dollars, is behind on payments to healthcare providers, has understaffed agencies, and has hit an impasse on an important infrastructure bill.

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All that was true even before the state’s governor was arrested last month on corruption charges. Now, the scandal surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who continues to defy calls to step down, is incurring real damage as Illinois flounders in a difficult fiscal crisis without an effective leader at the helm, many lawmakers and observers say.

“He was a bad governor before the arrest, but now we have no governor,” says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “The state is absolutely frozen. Not a single decision is being made about anything important.... In a recession like this one, we need someone to make the best possible hard decisions and to coordinate efforts to pull together and deal with it, and we don’t have that.”

The latest unexpected twist in the Blagojevich saga came on Tuesday, when he defied the wishes of state officials and US senators by naming a replacement for President-elect Obama’s vacated Senate seat. The decision was a reversal of an earlier statement by Governor Blagojevich’s lawyer, who had said the governor would not seek to appoint anyone to the seat.

The Senate leadership has vowed not to seat his pick, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, but it is unclear whether they have the legal right to carry through on this promise.

Meanwhile, impeachment proceedings are under way against Blagojevich in the state capital, and few people expect him to remain governor for long, despite his protestations that he is innocent of the charges against him.

The whole affair, say critics of the governor – a group that, at this point, includes most lawmakers, pundits, state officials, and voters – has created a circus in which everyone is watching to see what Blagojevich does and how the impeachment plays out, but no one is tackling the serious issues in the state.

“If we were in the best of times, maybe you could get by with an ineffective governor, but that’s not the situation we’re in,” says Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a government watchdog group, noting that the state is behind in many of its payments and the deficit is only getting worse. “These monumentally complex matters can’t be dealt with while he’s governor. No one trusts him, no one believes him, and a lot of people don’t think he’ll be governor much longer.”