Thursday, December 11, 2008

It only gets harder

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest this week unleashed a fury of activity that a) demonstrates how complicated and unprecedented this week’s events have been in Illinois and b) gives us a potential glimpse into what our future state government could look like.

Everyone agrees that the state legislature needs to act quickly but fairly. Yet, there’s already dissension among the legislative leaders and the second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. If next week’s emergency legislative session doesn’t foster some kind of consensus-building atmosphere, the national media will continue to sharpen their pencils and take copious notes about how such a screwed up state produced the next U.S. president.

Case in point: CNN’s headline the day after the governor’s arrest: “Illinois state politics read more like a script from ‘The Sopranos’ than a page out of the history books.”

The context
  1. All 50 Democratic U.S. senators indicated they would not seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich to replace President-elect Barack Obama, so that begs the question of how Obama should be replaced: Let the lieutenant governor appoint a replacement, or change state law to let the Illinois voters elect a new senator.
  2. There’s mounting pressure, even from the future president of the United States, for Blagojevich to resign. If he doesn’t, which is somewhat expected for this unpredictable individual, then there’s question of whether the legislature or the state Supreme Court shall kick him out of office.

The intertwined debate
In a very gubernatorial-like news conference from his Statehouse office this morning, Quinn said he doesn’t want to wait for a special election to fill Obama’s Senate seat. He would select a replacement as his first act as governor, if Blagojevich resigns or is forced out.

Quinn added that the governor’s legal problems already cost the state. Standard & Poor’s Rating Services put the state on a negative credit watch, potentially making it more expensive for the state to borrow $1.4 billion to pay down backlogged bills.

“We’re going to have to spend more taxpayer money to borrow $1.4 billion … because we have a cloud, a storm cloud, over the governor of Illinois and his chief of staff,” Quinn said.

The short-term borrowing is delayed by a few days, according to Carol Knowles, spokeswoman for state Comptroller Dan Hynes. She did not comment about why it was delayed but later said, "Everything in state government is in jeopardy as long as the governor remains in office."

The need for that borrowing plan adds to the urgency of why the Illinois General Assembly should immediately address “the source of the problem,” Quinn said, referring to getting Blagojevich out of office. “To focus on anything other than that, I think, is missing the highest priority.”

The House and Senate are scheduled to come back into emergency session Monday and Tuesday, but the intent is to advance legislation that would change state law so that voters could choose Obama’s replacement through a special election.

Quinn frequently speaks of “government by the people and for the people” and said that a special election would be ideal in normal circumstances. But the current scenario would make it more delayed and more expensive — by about half a year and $50 million. Quinn said that lag time would rob the state of a voice while the Congress voted on major decisions for reviving the national economy.

So far, there’s little indication that the chambers will comply with Quinn’s ideas.

Senate Republicans released a statement that supports the call for a special election. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno is quoted in the release as saying: “It is ludicrous to talk about anyone appointing the next United States senator. … There is no way that an appointment process can be free from the stench of this corrupt administration.”

In Illinois, the lieutenant governor and the governor do not run as running mates in the spring primary elections. They get lumped together on the same ticket in the November general election, making Blagojevich and Quinn running mates. Yet, Quinn said this morning that since the 2006 election, he repeatedly has spoken out against Blagojevich for various reasons, including the vastly unpopular idea to levy a gross receipts tax on businesses. Quinn was one of the most vocal supporters of an amendment to the state Constitution to allow voters to recall elected officials, a movement started because of Blagojevich. Quinn also held a rally of sorts outside one of Blagojevich’s fundraising events this year to support ethics reforms that will ban so-called pay-to-play politics, the heart of the federal probes involving Blagojevich.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said a special election is the only way to help restore the public’s trust in the system. And while not alleging anything improper done by Quinn, Cross said an election would avoid perceptions that the appointment process is tainted.

Cross also introduced the first resolution that could start the impeachment process. It would form a committee to gather evidence and determine whether there’s cause for impeachment. Four House Democrats also released a letter saying they wanted impeachment proceedings to start immediately, allowing for the quicker appointment of a U.S. Senate replacement.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said he’s “prepared to discuss the suggestions of the House Republican Leader.” But it doesn’t look like he’s exactly on board with them. Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said: “They just want to have a committee to investigate the investigation. That seems like a two-step backward process to me.”

Cross, however, said this afternoon that his proposal is based on House proceedings in 1997. A special investigative committee was formed to gather evidence and decide whether it was enough to move forward with impeachment proceedings for then-Illinois Supreme Court Justice James Heiple. “There’s not a lot of history, here. There’s not a lot of guidance in the Constitution, so we’re trying to respect what the speaker did before,” Cross said. “The bottom line is we want to move forward.”

If Madigan wants to jump right into impeachment proceedings by the full House, Cross said he’s open to that. “I’m not going to block something because the speaker has a different way to go. We just need to move, I think, soon.”

The Heiple impeachment took six weeks. Former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment process took four months. Cross guessed that Illinois could get it done in about month, although no one really knows. “Regardless of the amount of time it takes, I think you need to start the process, or it’ll just hang over us longer and longer and longer.”

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