With no one in charge, Illinois grinds to halt

The scandal involving Governor Blagojevich is delaying key budget decisions.

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

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.

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.”

In addition to the gridlock on the budget and other important legislation, the governor’s legal troubles have already cost the state at least $20 million in additional interest payments, when the state postponed a bond sale by several days immediately following Blagojevich’s arrest. In the interim ratings agencies downgraded Illinois’s debt rating. Standard & Poor’s put the state on a negative credit watch, due in part to Blagojevich’s legal troubles and the degree to which they’ll hinder efforts to solve the deficit problem.

“Before, [Blagojevich] was ineffective, but we weren’t at absolute gridlock. Now, nothing can get done,” says state Rep. Jack Franks (D), a frequent critic of the governor.

State deficit at $5 billion

The budget deficit is currently almost $5 billion, he notes, schools don’t know how much money they’ll have next year, and a much-needed capital-spending bill that would help create jobs and fix crumbling infrastructure doesn’t have a hope of getting passed until the governor is gone.

Perhaps most troubling, the state is behind on Medicaid and other healthcare payments, so many doctors have stopped taking new Medicaid patients, pharmacies aren’t filling prescriptions, and there’s a danger that some nursing homes and pharmacies will be forced out of business.

“This [scandal] is not something that’s in a vacuum,” says Representative Franks, who hopes the impeachment process will be nearing an end by the end of January. “Right now the people of Illinois are suffering in many ways.... It’s a domino effect throughout the entire state government.”

Professor Simpson, who teaches at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, says that the school has been told it will either have to make a 2 percent or 6 percent budget cut next year. “We can absorb 2 percent, but 6 percent means we fire people,” he says. “If someone were in power and were doing something about it, we’d know what our cut was, we’d have a plan that’s reasonable to project what to do next year, and we could always hope that someone would do something useful about trimming other parts of the state budget. The uncertainty means that every employee has to worry about their job.”

Blagojevich’s office didn’t return calls, but the governor has stated that he is continuing to do his job, and each day his office issues press releases of bills he has signed and the sort of gubernatorial announcements and proclamations that are the everyday stuff of government.

Move to name senator shocks many

Many Illinoisans were stunned by Blagojevich’s move to name a US Senate replacement, since one of the central charges against him was that he had tried to “sell” the seat to the highest bidder.

“We can’t take much more around here,” says Dawn Clark Netsch, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s law school and a candidate for governor in 1994. “We’re not the only state in trouble, but ours is pretty serious. We just don’t need all this business on the side.”

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