Friday, March 28, 2008

Capital debate in the Capitol

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to host a series of leaders’ meetings at the executive mansion in Springfield starting April 10, according to a letter from former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard. The March 25th letter is addressed to all four top legislative leaders.

Republican Hastert and Democrat Poshard are co-chairing the governor’s coalition to promote his $25 billion capital program, called Illinois Works, and it seems as though they could serve as a much-needed buffer between the governor and the legislative leaders in what’s sure to be a contentious debate about financing the plan.

It’s hard to get excited about that debate. It seems as though Statehouse insiders still feel hung over from last year’s political stalemate, turmoil, disgrace — whatever you want to call it. The situation begs the question of how today’s capital debate differs from 1999, when then-Gov. George Ryan worked with the legislature to approve the last major capital plan in Illinois. That same year, they earmarked 51 percent of the state’s general funds for education and rewrote the state’s gaming law to allow a docked casino in Cook County.

Why could leaders of opposing political parties accomplish all that when today’s Democratically controlled legislature and executive branch have a hard time even meeting in the same room? Personalities, for one. Republican and former Sen. James “Pate” Phillip led the Senate in 1999. The current House Speaker, Michael Madigan, controlled the House then, too. But Madigan and Blagojevich drastically differ in personalities and leadership styles (see our March cover story). It also should be noted that the context of the 1999 debate was a much better economy with higher-than-expected revenues. Today’s revenue picture is much gloomier.

But Ryan himself was quoted as saying in Illinois Issues magazine that working with the legislature was the key. “That’s what government’s about, sitting down to negotiate your differences,” he said in our own Charlie Wheeler column in 1999. “I worked hard for people to cooperate, to make sure we got done what had to be done.”

Stay tuned next week when the legislature will spring back into action after a two-week break. The Capital Development Board will testify about a capital bill during a House committee at the same time Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, is scheduled to hold a hearing about the governor's $1 million promise to the private Loop Lab School.

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