Saturday, February 28, 2009

Quinn taps key Democratic negotiator

By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn named Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and a deputy majority leader for House Speaker Michael Madigan, as director of the Illinois Department of Transportation. He replaces former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointee, Milton Sees, who served in the position since 2007.

Hannig, an accountant, had been a state representative since 1979 and served as the chief budget negotiator for the Democratic Caucus. Quinn said Hannig has the experience, expertise and integrity to lead the department.

Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, described the move as a positive step for the Quinn administration, potentially improving rather strained relations between the executive and legislative branches as they prepare to negotiate a long-awaited capital plan and a spending plan for federal stimulus funds. As Madigan’s second in command, Hannig is well-known and well-liked in both houses and on both sides of the aisle, Redfield said. “He knows the issues. He’s widely respected, and very, very experienced.”

Hannig said this morning that communication suffered under the Blagojevich administration because promises repeatedly were made and broken. He said he thinks that a little trust could go a long way. “I know them [members of the General Assembly] by name, and they know me, and I am not going to lie to them,” Hannig said.

Hannig said he has been meeting with Christine Reed, chief engineer and director of the department’s Highway Division, to prepare for the job and for handling federal stimulus funds. Hannig said that he thinks they make a good team because while he has budgeting experience, she has the engineering expertise.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Parks reopen, special election debate rekindles, Scully resigns

By Jamey Dunn and Bethany Jaeger
Gov. Pat Quinn announced the reopening of seven state parks today, although they’re not yet fully staffed. And Quinn said that he will soon make an announcement about reopening closed historic sites.

As of this morning, Castle Rock State Park and Lowden State Park in Oregon, Illini State Park in Marseilles, Hidden Springs State Forest in Strasburg, Moraine View State Park in Leroy, Weldon Springs State Park in Clinton and Wolf Creek State Park in Windsor are all open to visitors.

According to Marc Miller, Head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, it will take $1.1 million to keep these parks open for the rest of the fiscal year. He said that the department would pay for the reopening of the parks by tapping into special dedicated funds as part of a plan approved by the General Assembly in October. He said the agency won’t need to take funding from any other state operations.

Quinn said state parks generate an estimated $500 million in tourism dollars that “far outweigh” the money spent on keeping them open. Miller said more than 43 million people go to Illinois state parks every year, with 230,000 visiting the seven state parks last year before they were closed.

“We’ve got to get our economy out of the ditch. Part of doing that is making sure our parks are open,” Quinn said.

Quinn called the move both a public health and economic initiative targeted at getting people to exercise outdoors and to help create jobs by spurring local economies. He called upon Illinoisans to “pack our parks” as a frugal vacation option.

Special election update
While Republicans used Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s opinion as support for their wish to call for a special election to replace U.S. Sen. Roland Burris — regardless of whether he’s still in office — House and Senate Democrats are floating their own plans about calling special elections to fill vacancies. However, none are agreed upon bills.

Senate Democrats held two special election proposals and assigned them to subcommittees, which have served as legislative graveyards in the past. Executive Committee Chairman Ira Silverstein said they are to be working committees intended to give more time to debate such controversial measures.

Republican Sen. Matt Murphy, the Palatine Republican sponsoring one measure kicked out to subcommittee, said he was disappointed that the bill wasn’t called for debate today but that he doesn’t think it’s dead. “We’ve been embarrassed at least twice in this process now, and I’m going to continue to try and see that it doesn’t happen again.” We wrote about what the bill would do this morning.

A Democratic version is sponsored by Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago, who supports the idea to hold a special election to fill all vacancies, from county commissioners to state and U.S. senators. “People should have a right to vote in every case.”

The last time Hendon sponsored a bill that took such a broad approach was when he expanded the idea of allowing voters to recall elected officials from state legislators to local government officials. That bill died in committee, although Hendon said he did not intend for the special election bill to suffer the same fate.

He also took issue with a House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks and backed by the governor. “The House bill is another game, in my opinion, because they still just want to concentrate on Roland Burris, Roland Burris.”

Senate President John Cullerton said he’s waiting to see what the House does before the Senate acts. “This is a different, cooperative procedure that we’re geared to this year while we work together with both chambers. So I don’t want to just send messages over to the House without having an idea about what they’re going to do.”

Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, said he is waiting for a meeting with House Speaker Michael Madigan to discuss the status of his two special election bills. “The opinion indicates that it’s in our hands now and we have the power if want to set this election. I’m going to impress upon him the necessity to do so,” Franks said.

Franks said he is worried that if Burris files a lawsuit questioning the legality of holding an election, a long legal battle could ensue that makes the whole issue moot. “We could be stuck in court for months. I’m sure we’d be in court longer then when the next election would be in February of 2010,” he said.

Rep. Lou Lang, an assistant majority leader from Skokie, said the Democratic Caucus is divided on the issue. “This is not about Mr. Burris. It’s about what we do with the laws in the state of Illinois. Rod Blagojevich, as unfortunate as it was, made a legal appointment of Mr. Burris while he was still governor,” he said.

Judge Scully
Democrats and Republicans bid farewell, thank you and good luck to Rep. George Scully, who retired today to serve an appointment to the Cook County circuit court bench.

He was elected in 1996 to represent the south suburban Chicago House District 80. He has since dissected complex regulation and legal issues, including managing the heated and lengthy debate about regulating the electric utility industry after rates skyrocketed in 2005. He also reached out to numerous legislators to help them think through legislation, regardless of whether he agreed with them.

“He would see all sides, and for that, he was a very judicious legislator,” said Rep. Kevin Joyce, a Chicago Democrat and family friend.

A marathon runner, including the Boston Marathon, the “sergeant,” as he was called, often led a group of legislators and political insiders on four-mile runs around Springfield before session days. The nickname refers to his very serious but polite and professional manner in which he conducts himself.

“Tender, laid back, relaxed, easy going, soft. These are not words I would use to describe George Scully,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, joking before adding that Scully has a “keen mind and a true heart.”

Several Republicans also said their thanks. “I think many of us would like Rep. Scully to stay. He’s going to be a loss to this process, a loss to this chamber,” said Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican.

Scully said he’s leaving the legislature with a confidence in the state’s Constitution. “It has survived tremendous assault, and it came out very strong,” he said of the consecutive corruption allegations staining the state.

He ended by reciting insight he’d received 12 years ago: Trust the voters. People can accept that you disagree with them. They will never accept the fact that they’re being ignored.

AG: Burris' appointment "temporary"

By Bethany Jaeger
Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a legal opinion late last night that confirms the Illinois Republicans’ interpretation of the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: An appointment to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat is considered temporary, and the state legislature can set up an election to fill the seat currently held by U.S. Sen. Roland Burris.

According to her reading of the 17th Amendment, “although a state legislature may permit the state executive to fill a vacancy by appointment, that appointment is only ‘temporary.’” She said the General Assembly could reduce the U.S. Senate term without violating the senator’s right to due process of removal based on “cause.”

“A temporary appointee to the U.S. Senate has no right that prevents the General Assembly from passing legislation to enable the people to elect their U.S. senator.” In short, the opinion says nothing in the state or federal Constitution prohibits the General Assembly from changing the date of an election to choose a new U.S. senator.

Illinois House and Senate Republicans took that as a cue to call for another special election. “We do, in fact, have an opportunity legally and legitimately to have a special election and let people fill the Senate seat and stop the embarrassment that is the Roland Burris appointment,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican sponsoring a measure, SB 285, to move the primary election date to April 7 and the general election to May 26.

Senate Democrats also are sponsoring their own version of a special election bill, SB 1271, which is scheduled to be heard in a committee this afternoon.

If the Republican version were approved, the election to replace now U.S. Sen. Roland Burris would be on the same dates as local elections and, therefore, save money, Murphy said. Democrats also cited those two dates in December, when the party initially supported the idea of holding a special election to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Murphy said Democrats, which have estimated the cost of a special election at more than $40 million, are motivated by politics, not financial concerns. “I think it’s a little ironic that the people who spent us into a $9 billion hole are now going to get a little worried about $15 [million] to $25 million on an issue as important as this.”

He said the state budget still allots more than $15 million for member initiatives this fiscal year. If the General Assembly zeroed out those lines, he said the money could be used to help local governments with the cost of holding a special election. “So sure, it’s a concern but one that we can address if our priorities are right.”

Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, also said the price tag of a special election doesn’t cost as much as public cynicism. “What’s been the cost of the loss of confidence in this state? What’s the cost of people saying, ‘Why bother to vote? It doesn’t make any difference.’ Haven’t we learned anything from the last two or three years?”

The timing, however, would condense the process of finding candidates, circulating petitions and educating voters. Murphy said he’s less concerned about the timing than he is about Burris remaining in office until 2011. “Every time we think we can’t possibly get embarrassed one more time, we do.”

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times reports that Burris’ son received a job with the Blagojevich Administration in September, the month before the governor’s brother called Roland Burris for fundraising help, according to Burris’ February affidavit to the special House committee that recommended Blagojevich’s impeachment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Change is inevitable

Illinois' budget deficit looks worse, but the cooperation and transparency within state government looks better.

Gov. Pat Quinn has said in the past and confirmed again today that the state’s budget deficit could exceed the previously projected $9 billion next fiscal year. And the federal stimulus funds won’t come close to helping the state close the gap between the amount the state spends versus the amount the state collects in revenue. Jack Lavin, the governor’s chief operating officer, said last week that the current projection is that stimulus funds could help knock off $2 billion of the deficit. That means a lot more changes are in order, and those changes could be painful.

The Senate is gearing up for a series of public hearings to discuss where to cut and how to bring in more revenue. Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno are setting up a special committee, with an even number of Democrats and Republicans, to talk about where to scrutinize spending, including public employee pension systems, health and human services, education and state government operations. The committee is slated to produce a report with potential recommendations by March 25, one week after Quinn proposes his first state budget to the General Assembly.

While Cullerton said everything is on the table, he previously said that there wasn’t much room to cut from state employee payroll and that he couldn’t imagine cutting health care programs when so many people already lack health insurance. Republicans could have a completely different approach. So the creation of this new bipartisan committee gives Democrats and Republicans equal credit — or blame — for the product. It also means Republicans can’t sit back and say it’s a Democratic-controlled plan to which they can only voice opposition. Now they have to come up with some ideas, too.

Word of the day = transparency
Quinn also initiated another effort to change the climate within executive agencies and offices. Consistent with last week’s recommendations of public access advocates, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Quinn urged agency directors to err on the side of disclosure. “The people of Illinois demand an open, honest and transparent government,” Quinn said in a statement. “State government must take all steps necessary to make information as accessible as possible.”

In his memo to agency directors, he said, “No decision to withhold information sought [through the Freedom of Information Act] shall be made to avoid embarrassment or for any speculative or other improper purpose.”

Quinn also required that each agency submit a report within 45 days detailing the type of information that could be available online.

State parks to reopen
Quinn also will announce Thursday morning at the Springfield State Fairgrounds that the state will reopen seven state parks previously shut by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

He's not budging

by Jamey Dunn
U.S. Sen. Roland Burris ignored U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s call to resign. Durbin says that Burris told him today that he had no plans to resign, and he has not decided whether he will make a bid for the seat in 2010.

Durbin said that he advised Burris to resign because of the controversy surrounding his appointment to the U.S. Senate, and he added that Burris should have “volunteered” information about his fundraising attempts for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich when he testified before the House investigations committee in January. Burris filed an additional affidavit earlier this month that explained some — but not all — of his contacts with Blagojevich advisers prior to his appointment.

“We certainly had asked for more and hoped for more, and we didn’t receive it,” Durbin said.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pay-to-play = unfunded mandate?

The Illinois State Board of Elections chair, Judge Albert Porter, told a state ethics reform commission Monday that the agency sought $465,000 to implement the acclaimed pay-to-play ban approved by lawmakers in September, but "initially, no funds were provided."

The law now prevents businesses that hold state contracts worth more than $50,000 from donating to the political campaigns of the officeholders who sign those contracts. The so-called pay-to-play ban is in direct response to fundraising practices by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose campaign collected numerous $25,000 contributions from state contractors.

Porter said the enactment of the law without the funding led to problems because the State Board of Elections lacked the adequate technology, staff and budget needed to carry out the part of the law that requires businesses to register with the agency before bidding for state contracts. That led to the enactment of a temporary system that used paper registration until an electronic program could be unveiled. The agency has until August 1 to fulfill the electronic requirement. To date, the agency has had 3,400 registrations, according to Porter.

He said the temporary measure is “getting the job done,” but his testimony to Gov. Pat Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission invited questions about how the State Board of Elections would be impacted by more reforms. The commission, which focused on campaign finance reform ideas Monday, particularly wondered about one idea to require politicians to immediately report donations online rather than report donations twice a year. Porter said a "real-time reporting" mandate would demand more manpower and upgraded technology, as well as state funding, but he said he’d have to get back to the commission about more specific effects.

More immediate reporting requirements are supported by such good government groups as the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (Cindi Canary's testimony here) and the Sunshine Database, run by Kent Redfield, retired political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Both testified to the commission during today's hearing at UIS. Redfield said the current disclosure system creates a “document dump” every six months, challenging the public, the media and good government groups from following the money in a timely manner.

The commission also heard several takes on whether capping the amount individuals or businesses could donate to political candidates would be effective in Illinois, but we'll have more about so-called campaign contribution limits soon.

The lead commissioner, former assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, said just because Blagojevich is "pushed off the stage," the state still has to deal with its structural problem. As the lead prosecutor for the Hired Truck scandal in the City of Chicago (more here) and the Operation Safe Road investigation at the state level, Collins said he was looking for substantive and smart reforms, not reforms that just sound good on paper. While he said his prosecutorial experience notably predates Rod Blagojevich’s pay-to-play allegations, he added: "This stuff is endemic, it’s in the water. Pay-to-play is something that, I think, crosses political parties, and it’s really the underbelly of campaign finance.”

The special legislative committee exploring ethics reforms will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the state Capitol. Quinn's appointed reform commission will next meet at the Chicago Bar Association on March 5. Everyone is welcome, as these are public hearings.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pressure builds for another Illinois politician to step down

By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn today called on U.S. Sen. Roland Burris to resign and once again threw his support behind a special election to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Quinn said at a Chicago press conference that the mounting controversy over the circumstances of Burris’ appointment has made him unable to be an effective U.S. senator. He said he would consider a resignation from Burris a “heroic” way for the senator to preserve his legacy.

“I would ask my good friend, Sen. Roland Burris, to put the interests of the people of the Land of Lincoln first and foremost, ahead of his own, and step aside and resign from his office,” he said.

Quinn said that he hopes to see the seat vacated and legislation that would allow a special election within a week.

But Burris is still in office and hasn’t stepped down, despite growing pressure for him to do so, including a strong message from Obama’s press secretary earlier today. And negotiations on the idea of a special election still have a way to go. Quinn supports a bill from Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, that would require a special election if the seat became vacant more than 180 days before the general primary.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who joined a group of Republicans yesterday to call for a special election, said she wants the primary for the proposed special election to be held with the April 7 municipal general election and the special election to take place 30 days after. She said that would save the state money.

Franks said Radogno is jumping ahead in the process and that a date cannot be set as long as Burris is in office. He said that it would be impossible to hold the primary for the special election in conjunction with the April election because there is not enough time. Franks said he wants a timeline to be set that could be used if the seat became vacant. He proposed a bill that would call for a special election within four months of the vacancy.

However, both Franks and Radogno support reimbursing local governments for some of the cost of a special election.

Franks is counting on Republican backing once all the details have been ironed out, but he said he’s not sure if there would be enough support from House Democrats. When a special election was proposed in December after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest, Democrats blocked it. But Franks said he thinks that they would be more willing to negotiate now. “At least we’re talking about it, and now it’s much more serious than it was just a few days ago,” he said.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Prepare for the stimulus

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn contributing
Jack Lavin prefers not to be called this state’s “stimulus czar,” but his first two days on the job as Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief operating officer (corrected) have been dominated by projections of the amount of money Illinois will capture from the $787 billion federal stimulus package.

But Lavin also responded to concerns that his appointment could be clouded by his past ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and convicted felon Tony Rezko. Rezko was one of the people who recommended Lavin for his previous job as director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity during Blagojevich’s administration. Lavin and Quinn reportedly have been friends. Lavin pointed to his record. Here’s what he had to say:

I worked for those two men. They made some bad decisions. I had no part in any of those decisions, and I think my track record at DCEO speaks for itself. And it was a track record of working with business leaders, labor leaders, local governments, local mayors, legislators on both sides of the aisle, the congressional delegation. If you ask them, they will all say that we treated people with respect and integrity. We returned their calls, and that’s just the kind of thing and the kind of collaboration and partnership that we had at DCEO that we need now across all agencies, and working with the legislature, to be on the road to economic recovery.

Lavin testified to a special Senate committee this evening that Illinois could receive about $7 billion for programs and state operations, as well as about $2 billion for transportation-related and capital projects.

While the National Governor’s Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures ranks Illinois 6th in the nation for the amount of money it's estimated to receive in stimulus funds (projected to be about $8.8 billion), it’s clear that the incoming money won’t stretch far enough to cure the state’s $9 billion budget deficit next fiscal year. Estimates also are very fluid and vary.

The anticipation of the federal funds sparks a few concerns among legislators. 1) Lawmakers fear that the essentially one-time stimulus funds will build expectations and a false sense of hope that the state could maintain the increased funding levels once the federal money runs run out. 2) It’s widely acknowledged that the stimulus money could help, but it’s not even close to the amount of money that the state and service providers need to completely heal from the recession and consecutive years of deficits. 3) State agencies, particularly the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, are concerned about having enough staff on hand to handle stimulus-funded projects. Both said they could hire temporary workers or consultants to get through increased work load.

Lavin said while those concerns are valid, the stimulus package is designed to plug budgetary holes and avert layoffs, particularly in education. And then, in theory, as the state’s economy begins to recover, the state would be able to pay for some of these ongoing costs and new programs. (Some of the stimulus money will help expand or fund existing programs by using existing funding formulas, while other portions will create new programs.)

Higher education officials also expressed the concern that the $2 billion in stimulus funds could lead to a game of shuffle. Judy Irwin, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education, said there’s a possibility that money could be cut from education in the state budget to make up for shortfalls in other state operations, and then the federal stimulus money would be used to fill in the cuts to education. If that happened, schools would end up not getting much more money than they do now, she said.

Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns that schools in their home districts are expecting large funding increases that they may never see. “The frustration is that there really isn’t going to be a lot of money. …While it looks like there’s a lot of money going to schools, it’s really not going to be there,” said Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican.

We’ll have much more about the details of the stimulus funds and how the state decides to divvy up the money. In the meantime, here’s a quick list of highlights, provided by Lavin’s testimony. Also, the state on Friday will launch a stimulus-specific Web site:

General stimulus highlights for Illinois
About $7 billion for programs and state operations, according to Lavin’s estimates.
That includes funding for existing programs, using existing funding formulas:
  • $2.9 billion for Medicaid
  • $2 billion for school aid
  • $110 million for workforce investment programs (to help people get trained to take on another job)
  • $276 million for “green” jobs and weatherization programs
The stimulus also could bring in about $2 billion for infrastructure and capital, including:
  • $935 million for rebuilding highways and bridges
  • $371 million for transit assistance
  • $260 million for wastewater and clean drinking water
  • $222 million for public housing
  • $24 for education technology
  • $110 million energy programs, some of which can be used for operations and some of which can be used for capital
The state also will have a chance to compete for grants, including through the Department on Energy. That’s where Mattoon could compete for funding to rekindle the FutureGen project that got scrapped under President George Bush last year. Other projects of homeland security, broadband infrastructure and Army Corps of Engineers also could be eligible for grants.

Republicans want a special election

By Hilary Russell, with Jamey Dunn contributing
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Tom Cross and other Republican legislators said they are disappointed with House Democrats’ delayed response to the latest chapter in the case of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris. During a Statehouse news conference today, GOP members of both chambers argued that a special election was the only way to immediately begin restoring the state’s reputation.

“Returning that, to use the phrase, bleeping golden Senate seat back to the people is the only real way, the only real solution to the state’s embarrassing problem,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

He’s sponsoring SB 285, which calls for vacant U.S. Senate seats to be filled by special election rather than gubernatorial appointment. A special primary election would be held April 7, and a special general election would be held May 26.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Black, a Danville Republican, introduced two resolutions today designed to make House Democrats go on record about how to handle Burris. HR 92 calls for Burris’ resignation, and HR 93 urges the U.S. Senate to investigate him. Democrats did not let either measure get called for debate.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Spotlight on ethics — and politics

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The legislature’s effort to improve government ethics in the aftermath of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich today shifted the spotlight onto partisan politics — and the ongoing public-perception battle of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris.

Illinois Republicans continued to bring attention to the way Democratic leadership, particularly Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, handled information regarding Burris’ appointment. She chaired the special House committee that recommended Blagojevich’s impeachment last month.

Currie today responded to accusations that she purposely withheld an affidavit filed by Burris, which explained that he had contact with a handful of Blagojevich’s advisers prior to his appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Republicans alleged that Currie did not share the affidavit as soon as she received it because it might have embarrassed Democrats.

From the House floor, Currie said she glanced at Burris’ letter and assumed the entire document contained routine follow-up information about his lobbying clients. Before the affidavit was shared with staff or with Republican committee members, Currie said, Burris released the document to Chicago media.

“Any suggestion that I engaged in a deliberate cover up, that I purposely delayed the distribution of the information, is totally false,” she said. “Any suggestion that I should do a better job of reading my mail in a timely fashion is a suggestion I enthusiastically and more than a little ruefully embrace.”

She has since posted on the committee’s Web site numerous follow-up letters regarding the impeachment report.

Rep. Jim Durkin, Republican co-chair of the special House impeachment committee, said he does not want the committee to reconvene because it could create a legal loophole for Burris to avoid prosecution for potential perjury. Durkin cited a state statute (scroll down to Sec. 32-2c). It says a witness can admit to giving false testimony during an ongoing trial and later correct the statement without facing perjury charges.

Some Democrats agree with Durkin. Reps. Jack Franks of Woodstock and Susana Mendoza of Chicago called on Burris to resign today, joining a growing list of state and federal officials doing so. Both Democrats said they did not want the House committee to hear from Burris again.

“It makes no sense to give somebody who we know lied, who purposefully lied — there’s no doubt in my mind — an opportunity allow himself to squirm his way out of potentially having to go before a court and explain his actions,” Mendoza said.

House GOP members called once more for special election to fill the seat. “This is so tainted, said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Huntsville Republican. “This is so dirty that the only disinfectant that will work is the will of the people. … I don’t have any idea why we continue to be afraid of an election in a democracy.”

Franks and Mendoza both called for a special election. Mendoza, who originally opposed a special election, said she deserved part of the blame for the current situation. She said that she assumed no one would have the “lack of integrity and the blind ambition” to accept an appointment from Blagojevich. “I never thought that this would happen.”

Joint ethics committee
When Democrats and Republicans of both chambers met to discuss ethics reforms this morning, GOP leaders cited the handling of the Burris affidavit and said Democratic control has been unfair and turbid. “The actions of the majority party have been anything but open, have been anything but transparent, have been anything to reflect sunshine over the last two to three weeks,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. He and other GOP leaders said the makeup of the ethics reform committee — 10 Democrats and 6 Republicans — fails to ensure bipartisan cooperation and sharing of information.

Durkin said the effort to improve transparency includes information between lawmakers. “Openness is not just with the public, but it also has to be between Republicans and Democrats. And I hope we can do a better job of it in the future.”

Democratic leaders -- House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton -- said the makeup of this committee, like all others, reflects the Democratic majority in the legislature. Madigan added that as the majority party, Democrats will be held accountable for the committee’s actions.

Ethics reforms in the works
The purpose of today’s ethics committee was to hear testimony about reforming the state’s Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act. Attorney General Lisa Madigan was among those who offered such recommendations. They include:
  • Require training of public employees who respond to FOIA requests.
  • Charge fines for people who violate the FOI law.
  • Codify the public access counselor, which she created in 2004 in response to Blagojevich’s administration, and allow that lawyer’s opinions to be legally binding rather than advisory.
  • Allow findings of ethical violations of state employees to be made public and to be referred to law enforcement.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in DuPage County, added:
Update provisions about the use of technology to produce documents to the public.
  • Tighten rules about when information is exempt from public access. Illinois currently has about 45 exemptions, while the average in other states is about 15, she said.
  • Ensure people are only charging for the actual cost of reproducing the documents.

The legislature’s committee will meet again at 9 a.m. February 24 in the state Capitol, while Gov. Pat Quinn’s ethics reform commission will meet at 11 a.m. February 23 at the University of Illinois at Springfield. All hearings are open to the public.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The never-ending story

By Jamey Dunn
House Speaker Michael Madigan sent documents today to the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office that could prompt a perjury investigation of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, and Burris on Monday revealed more information about his conversations with Rob Blagojevich, brother of the former governor.

Burris’ latest public perception battle began over the weekend, when it was revealed in a new affidavit that he discussed his interest in the U.S. Senate seat with members of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s inner circle. Illinois Republicans and Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan have called for Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt to investigate possible perjury charges based on inconsistencies between the most recent affidavit, filed earlier this month, and Burris’ affidavit and testimony that was given to the House committee a month ago.

Madigan today sent the two affidavits that Burris filed with the special House investigation committee and a transcript of his testimony to Schmidt’s office. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that this was a “good start,” but he said he still wanted Democrats to explain why they did not disclose the affidavit as soon as it was filed February 4.

Rep. Jim Durkin, minority spokesman for the House committee, said that Democrats kept the GOP members out of the loop by refusing to reveal the new affidavit and by making the decision to send the documents to the state’s attorney’s office on their own. Durkin said Democrats have closed the door on bipartisanship and that he sees “no reason to talk to them about anything.”

Meanwhile, Burris continues to add details to his story. He reportedly said today that he reached out to the prosecutor and said he had nothing to hide. Also, according to the Chicago Tribune, he said he did, indeed, speak to the former governor’s brother and tried raise some money for the governor’s political campaign. As outlined in the affidavit, there were three conversations. Burris shed some more light on them today, per the Tribune transcript:
  1. October 2008: Burris said Rob Blagojevich called him to seek fundraising help for the former governor, and Burris said he couldn’t help until after the election. According to Burris, during that phone call, he also inquired about the Senate seat. Rob Blagojevich’s lawyer has been quoted as saying otherwise. According to Burris’ affidavit, Rob Blagojevich said Burris’ name had come up.
  2. After the November election, Rob Blagojevich called again. Burris said he tried to organize fundraising, but no one he approached was interested in donating. Burris said they discussed the possibility of approaching other people to raise money.
  3. The third time that Rob Blagojevich called, Burris said he explained that he could no longer help because he was interested in the appointment. Burris previously said that he did not offer any fundraising help.

Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said there probably was no quid pro quo involved in the U.S. Senate appointment. Redfield said that Burris’ one chance to clear up any suspicion about his appointment and “sever ties” with the former governor was in January. And the more details that come out now, the more “everything is under suspicion.”

In addition, Redfield said, the more details that trickle out, the more Burris’ chances in the 2010 U.S. Senate race are called into question. Burris’ actions also increase the chances that state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who currently is traveling abroad with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, will make a run for the seat. Redfield also said that if Burris decided to run and won the Democratic primary, these revelations would become fodder for a Republican challenger’s campaign. “The TV commercials almost write themselves,” he said.

Monday, February 16, 2009

More to the story

by Jamey Dunn
U.S. Sen. Roland Burris is likely to get an earful on his five-day “listening tour” of the state this week. It started off with a bang today in Chicago. He was hounded by media asking about the weekend’s headliner that contrary to what was on public record before the Illinois House, Burris had spoken with close friends and confidants of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich before being appointed to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

The new information comes in an affidavit that was filed with the Illinois House impeachment committee February 4 but that was not revealed until this past weekend.

Burris wrote that Rob Blagojevich, brother of the former governor, called him three times for fundraising help before Burris was appointed to the U.S. Senate. In his affidavit, Burris said he didn’t give any assistance or money to Blagojevich because “it could be viewed as an attempt to curry favor with him regarding his decision to appoint a successor to President Obama.” Burris also wrote that he discussed his interest in the U.S. Senate seat with three other former Blagojevich insiders — Doug Scofield, John Wyma and former Deputy Gov. John Harris — between June and the November election.

Illinois Republicans allege that his new affidavit contradicts 1) his sworn testimony before the Illinois House impeachment committee in January (scroll down) and 2) his written affidavit filed January 5 with the committee. The GOP is calling for the Sangamon County state’s attorney's office to investigate possible perjury charges against Burris.

When Burris appeared before a special House impeachment committee in January, he only specified that he talked to Lon Monk, a close friend of and former chief of staff to then-Gov. Blagojevich, regarding his interest in the U.S. Senate seat. In his affidavit, he wrote that he did not speak with Blagojevich “or any or his representatives regarding my appointment.”

Both Burris and his lawyer Timothy Wright III said in a Chicago news conference Sunday that Western Springs Republican Rep. Jim Durkin’s line of questioning allowed that information to fall through the cracks. Wright said that after reviewing a transcript of Burris’ January 8 testimony, he realized that some details had been left out. Wright said he phoned Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, chair of the House committee, and asked her what to do. He said she told him to file an affidavit with her office.

House Democratic spokesman Steve Brown, speaking on behalf of Currie, said this morning that the staff became aware of Burris’ new affidavit on February 11, shortly before leaving town for a long weekend. He said they will further discuss the situation when they return to Springfield tomorrow.

Burris maintained during the news conference that he did not lie before the House committee and that the affidavit was meant to supplement his testimony, not change his story. He blamed any perceived inconsistencies on misleading media coverage.

He will give speeches and seek feedback from Illinoisans. Burris went to Peoria today and is scheduled to go to Bloomington-Normal, Rockford, Chicago and North Chicago before the end of the week.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama celebrates Lincoln bicentennial

The 44th president of the United States tonight honored the 16th president. President Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln share not only a connection to Springfield as the city that launched their presidencies, but Obama said they also share an appreciation of the ideology that "individual liberty is served -- not negated -- by a recognition of the common good."

Obama said during a Springfield event honoring Lincoln's 200th birthday that the experience was humbling, "humbling for me, in particular, because it's fair to say that the presidency of this singular figure, who we celebrate in so many ways, made my own story possible."

Sounding much like one of his campaign speeches, Obama's roughly 16-minute talk emphasized Democratic ideology that government can play a positive role in channeling energy and innovation for a common cause, particularly in times of crisis.

"Only by coming together, all of us, in union and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsiblity -- for ourselves, yes, but also for one another -- can we do the work that must be done in this country. That is part of the definition of being America."

He inserted some comedy by laughing at his own troubles in trying to appoint a secretary of commerce. Obama described Lincoln, the Springfield lawyer, resting his heels on a cluttered desk, "maybe wondering if someone might call him up and ask him to be commerce secretary." Obama's second nominee, Judd Gregg, a Republican, today withdrew his name and cited irreconcilable differences with the president's economic policy. Obama's first nominee, New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, withdrew his name because he was subject of a federal investigation.

Two years ago this week, Obama launched his presidential candidacy from the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the city where Lincoln served as a legislator and where he departed from on his train ride to Washington, D.C. "It was here nearly 150 years ago that the man whose life we are celebrating today, who you've been celebrating all week, bid farewell to this city that he had come to call his own. And has already been mentioned on a platform at a train station not far from where we're gathered, Lincoln turned to the crowd that had come to see him off and said, 'To this place and the kindness these people, I owe everything.' And being here tonight, surrounded by all of you, I share his sentiment."

He closed with a challenge. "As one nation, as one people -- that's how we will beat back our present dangers. That is how we will surpass what trials may come. That's how we will do what Lincoln called on us all to do and nobly save the last best hope on earth.

"That's what this is: The last best hope on earth. Lincoln has passed that legacy on to us. It is now our responsibility to pass it on to the next generation."

His speech capped off a day of nationwide attention on Lincoln's birthday and his Illinois connections, as well as his appearance in East Peoria, where he campaigned for public support of his economic stimulus plan at Caterpillar Inc.'s headquarters.

Throughout Springfield, Gov. Pat Quinn appeared at Lincoln-related events. He later hosted an open house at the Governor's Mansion, where he greeted a line of visitors that wrapped around half a block.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Howe Developmental Center update

By Hilary Russell
Now that a new governor is in office, some advocates for the developmentally disabled hope that the closure of the William A. Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park, a Chicago suburb, will happen as soon as possible.

Representatives from several advocacy and disability groups delivered a petition today to Gov. Pat Quinn containing 1,500 signatures and a report detailing recent incidents of abuse and death at Howe. Advocates urged his support and immediate action to close the facility. See background here.

Five more people have died at Howe since the Illinois Department of Human Services announced a decision to close the facility in September 2008. That brings the total to 29 people who have died in the past 3 1/2 years.

“This is a facility that’s broken. It’s not going to be fixed,” Zena Naiditch, chief executive officer of Equip for Equality, said at a Statehouse news conference today. “We’re wasting almost $80 million a year to keep this place operating, and every month, or two or three that we keep Howe open, we’re gonna have another couple of deaths. So it’s critical that this happen in a timely manner.”

Almost two years after the federal government decertified the facility because it failed to meet minimum standards, Howe has remained open. Decertification results in a loss of federal funding, but the state has picked up the rest of the tab.

One advocate urged his peers to demand humane living conditions for people living in institutions, citing the right to be treated with respect and compassion despite “maintaining some unique challenges.”

Lester Pritchard, chief executive officer of the grassroots organization Campaign for Real Choice, asked people to imagine being forced to live in an institution where they don’t feel safe and where they completely depend other people, regardless of whether they feel comfortable with them.

“We call on the governor to stop this torment at Howe,” said Pritchard, who relied on his wife to “revoice” for him when he spoke. “To put politics aside and return to his activists roots. Close this facility and allow these people to move to a safer living environment.”

But not everyone, including those directly involved in those types of facilities, believe closing the homes is the right thing to do.

Some families and even residents have expressed their opposition to such a move, citing fears about how and where the residents would live. Employees, too, have expressed opposition, saying hundreds will lose their jobs if the state closes the facility this summer.

The Department of Human Services operates eight other developmental centers. Each of these facilities is responsible for caring for people with developmental disabilities and major behavioral and or medical needs.

Howe has the most reported deaths of any state operated facility in Illinois.

Belt-tightening begins

Gov. Pat Quinn started the process of trimming the fat, ordering all state agencies to further cut their budgets by 1 percent and hold the line on travel, equipment, contracts and hiring. Agencies already were operating on a 3 percent reduction under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “We have to make sure that state government is lean and cuts costs wherever it can,” Quinn said this afternoon in the Capitol. He estimated savings at “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

But lean state agencies could challenge the state’s ability to compete for federal transportation funds, according the Associated Press. It reported this afternoon that the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to Quinn to warn that the Illinois Department of Transportation may be too understaffed to carry out major road construction projects.

Quinn said this afternoon that he had not seen the letter but that Illinois would do whatever it takes to ensure the ready-to-go projects are, in fact, ready to go.

After meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol this afternoon, Quinn reiterated his priorities of health care, education, transportation and public safety; however, he also sent the message to legislators to be prepared to take some tough votes, keep their wish lists in check and consider the fiscal context under which decisions will have to be made.

He also set the tone of a more cooperative budget-making process. Democratic Rep. David Miller of Lynwood said his approach is less antagonistic than it was under Blagojevich. “My opinion will be evaluated for its merits,” Miller said. “It will be looked at closely, and if there are ways that I can come up with trying to decrease the cost to the state, streamline efficiencies, then [Quinn will] be very, very open to it.”

But according to Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat, Quinn simply set the stage for some more belt-tightening and reforms. “We don’t know exactly what that means. Are we cutting programs, or are we raising taxes? He didn’t get specific, but he did talk about being very realistic this year and the tough choices facing us.”

She said the effort to build uniform understanding of the dire fiscal straights — a nearly $9 billion deficit next fiscal year — is necessary. “If we are going to take the very difficult leap to raise taxes, we are all going to have to be on the same team. And we’re going to have to sell it to the people.”

Other than watching for proposals to reform the state’s tax structure, also watch for alternative borrowing schemes. We’ll have more on that in the near future.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Quinn's cabinet and agenda take shape

Gov. Pat Quinn’s has selected two relative outsiders as his first picks for behind-the-scenes staff. He named a social service advocate for children as his chief of staff and a former U.S. attorney whom he’d met less than a month ago as his chief legal counsel.

Jerry Stermer of Elmhurst said this morning that he accepted the chief of staff position because the administration would put “children first.” That’s rounding out Quinn’s agenda that, so far, has prioritized a capital construction program, a plan to chip away at the state’s $4 billion in unpaid bills, a yet-to-be announced education plan and an ethics reform package.

Stermer is the founder and 22-year president of Voices for Illinois Children, a privately funded group based in Chicago that advocates for health care and education. The group worked with former Gov. Jim Edgar in a failed attempt to change the state’s tax structure to fund public education, relying more on state income taxes and less on property taxes. The measure has been proposed numerous times in various forms since then, but Senate President John Cullerton, who now controls the flow of legislation in his chamber, is a proponent.

Stermer and Quinn acknowledged during a Chicago news conference this morning that taxes are on the table as part of a “rescue plan” for the state budget, but they also used the words “fairness strategy” to indicate tax breaks or deductions for low-income families. “We do want to have in Illinois a tax code that is fair to parents raising kids,” Quinn said. “I think I saw once that our state gives more tax breaks to those raising thoroughbred horses than it gives to parents raising children. We’re going to change that.”

Stermer’s group also worked with previous governors to increase the number of children with health insurance through state-sponsored programs, including former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s All Kids program. Stermer said the organization supported Blagojevich’s attempt to expand the FamilyCare benefits to middle-income families, although he did not take a stance on the legal challenge of whether Blagojevich overstepped his authority by skirting the legislature to do so.

Stermer’s background includes working for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services from 1973 to 1979, followed by a supervisory position with the Legislative Advisory Committee on Public Aid. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in 1968 through 1970. He met Quinn in the 1970s, when he said in our profile of the soon-to-be governor that Quinn introduced him to working on campaigns of independent- and reform-minded people who ran against the Chicago Democratic machine.

Ted Chung of Highland Park said Quinn called “out of the blue” to offer him the job as chief legal counsel about three to four weeks ago. He said that could be an asset. “I don’t have a lot invested emotionally in this man,” he said alongside Quinn in the news conference. Because of that, he said, he will “absolutely” be willing to tell the governor “no” when needed. “When called for, not only to say no, but to say no very clearly, very loudly, very unambiguously.”

One of his jobs will be to work with the new Illinois Reform Council, which is expected to recommend a series of ethics reforms by mid-April.

Chung, among other positions within the City of Chicago, was Mayor Richard Daley’s former deputy chief of staff for public safety. He also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Illinois between 1998 and 2004. He graduated from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and earned his law degree from Northwestern University Law School in Evanston. He was the editor in chief of the Northwestern University Law Review.

Friday, February 06, 2009

What governors are saying about the stimulus

Thanks to statehouse reporters across the nation, The Morning Call's John Micek in Pennsylvania provides a quick list of governors who are backing the federal stimulus package.

Gov. Pat Quinn is among numerous governors who wrote to President Barack Obama to support his plan. John also complied more state-specific data. Here's his post, including other journalists' descriptions about their governors' level of support:

On Monday, a bunch of governors (of both parties) wrote to President Barack Obama to express their support for the Stim and to urge its passage. As expected, their ranks includes Gov. Ed. Other signatories were:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California
Gov. Bill Ritter, Colorado
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Connecticut
Gov. Jack Markell, Delaware
Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida
Gov. Patrick Quinn, Illinois
Gov. Chester Culver, Iowa
Gov. DeVal Patrick, Massachussetts
Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan
Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey
Gov. David Paterson, New York
Gov. Ted Strickland, Ohio
Gov. Brad Henry, Oklahoma
Gov. Thedore Kulongski, Oregon
Gov. Jim Douglas, Vermont
Gov. Tim Kaine, Virginia
Gov. John deJongh, U.S. Virgin Islands

Meanwhile ... here's some more state-specific data.

Gov. Mike Beebe (D) seems excited about the money, especially stuff he could spend on roads

Gov. Charlie Crist is in the vanguard of Republicans who have been actively lobbying on behalf of the Stim by doing national television interviews.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) came up with a task force to figure out how to spend whatever money they get

Gov. Bobby Jindal is opposed, but will use the $2.5 billion over two years to help offset budget cuts.

Gov. Steve Beshear (D) seems pretty supportive

Gov. Martin O'Malley pulled back a budget with somewhere around $2 billion in cuts and Rainy Day Fund transfers in expectation of stimulus cash. Not clear if he's put it back yet in w/a supplemental correcting for stimulus dollars ...

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his amazing hair are against the stimulus, and say reckless spending will drive up the deficit. But yeah, he's put a placeholder in his state budget for the expected cash.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer is trying to figure out how to spend the money.

Gov. Jim Gibbons (R), facing a bear of a budget shortfall, sent a letter saying the $1.3 billion from the feds would help.

Gov. Bev Perdue is supposed to be at the House Democratic Caucus today promoting the Stim. From a press release: "Governor Perdue will urge congressional members to move quickly on a stimulus package that funds infrastructure and other economic development projects and that will put North Carolinians back to work as soon as possible."

Gov. Ted Strickland is counting on $3.4 billion to balance his upcoming budget.

Gov. Mike Rounds doesn't want the Legislature to depend on the money to pass its budget.

Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is counting on the money in his budget, or it looks like he will

Gov. John deJongh Jr. is on Capitol Hill lobbying for it today (Friday).

Gov. Jon M. Huntsman (R) hedges a bit: "While we're not reliant on a federal bailout in order to balance our books, this could be considered a type of stimulus that we could benefit from."

Gov. Tim Kaine ... total Kool-Aid drinker. He's DNC chairman. What's he gonna do? Say no? Also, his state is $3 billion the hole, and lawmakers are supposed to adjourn on Feb. 28.

Gov. Joe Manchin says "this country wasn't built on handouts. We didn't become leader of the free world by waiting on someone to give us a handout."
Nonetheless, Manchin's hand is extended, he submitted a list of scores of stimulus-qualifying, infrastructure-type projects totaling nearly $2.3 billion to the new administration.

Gov. Jim Doyle (D) put off releasing his budget until he knows what’s in the stimulus

Time for some long-term fiscal planning

State Comptroller Dan Hynes already painted a dismal picture of the state's fiscal status with his projection of a nearly $9 billion deficit in fiscal year 2010, which starts July 1. He estimated that could drop to a roughly $6 billion deficit if the state received $3 billion from the federal stimulus package, but the federal bailout amount for states is in flux at this very minute. Adding to the problem is that the current fiscal year 2009 budget keeps getting more and more out of whack. The revenue forecast looks worse than it did in November, according to the legislature’s economic forecasting arm.

Last fall, the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability said revenues for the current fiscal year 2009 would fall $550 million below the previous year, or $1.34 billion less than the level budgeted.

Part of that spending plan assumed the state would collect $435 million by selling the state’s 10th riverboat license, but the winning bid for the license came in at only $125 million — and it won’t be available in time to ease this year’s budget crunch. According to the Illinois Gaming Board, the money could come in two chunks, one in fiscal year 2010 and the rest in 2011.

In short, the current year’s revenue picture “worsened virtually over night to nearly $1 billion less than the previous year,” the commission said in its January revenue forecast.

The commission added that it may need to make further adjustments when state income and sales tax revenues decline as the national recession unfolds. The cumulative damage: at least $1.6 billion by March.

As all four legislative leaders met with Gov. Pat Quinn this past week, talk of tax increases and budget cuts circled the Capitol. Public administration professor David Merriman at the University of Illinois at Chicago said even if the state gets $3 billion in federal bailout money, cuts spending and increases the state income tax by 1 percentage point, it's still going to be a rough road ahead. "The state needs to do long-term fiscal planning, and they need the legislature to take that seriously," he said.

Watch for more context and analysis in the March edition of Illinois Issues magazine.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Chris Kelly indicted again

Christopher Kelly, a former campaign manager to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, received another federal indictment today, this time alleging he rigged roofing contracts with two major airlines to pay for gambling debts and a house, among other things.

We wrote about him a little more than a year ago, when his first indictment said he used corporate funds from his roofing and consulting firms to pay illegal gambling debt and bookies.

The most recent indictment says he allegedly funneled more than $1.18 million in proceeds from fraudulent contracts (see U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's news release here). He’s the president and owner of a roofing firm, which allegedly rigged bids to steer $8.5 million in “inflated contracts” for roofing work done on American Airlines and United Airlines facilities at O’Hare International Airport. The scheme allegedly helped Kelly pay $383,000 in personal gambling debts, $700,000 for a personal loan to buy a house and $40,000 in personal expenses. The scheme also granted $450,000 to a president of the consulting firm allegedly involved in the activities.

Kelly was charged with 11 counts of mail fraud and six counts of money laundering. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The feds also are seeking the $1.18 million involved in the money laundering counts, $1.6 million involved in the contract fraud, as well as Kelly’s Burr Ridge house. He’ll be arraigned at a later date.

Anti-Blagojevich actions continue

While Gov. Pat Quinn today reversed one of the last decisions made by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state lawmakers advanced two measures that aim directly at some of the accusations that led to Blagojevich's impeachment.


By Jamey Dunn

Quinn today replaced recent state Rep. Kurt Granberg as the head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources with one of his senior policy advisers, Marc Miller. Miller was Quinn’s liaison to the Illinois River Coordinating Council. Granberg, a Carlyle Democrat, was appointed to the position by Blagojevich last month and reportedly was slated to receive a $40,000 bump in his pension.

During his first news conference as governor, Quinn said he wanted a “natural resources professional” in that position rather than the former lawmaker. Quinn described Miller as “a fisherman, he’s a hunter, he’s a bicycle rider, he canoes, he likes to go in kayaks he is a birdwatcher, a stargazer. You name it, when it comes to wildlife, he knows all about it.”

Miller, a Mattoon native, currently lives in Springfield. He left a job at the Prairie Rivers Network to work with Quinn in 2004.

Neither Miller nor Quinn would comment specifically about reopening state parks or rehiring employees who were laid off after Blagojevich cut the department’s budget last year. Miller said that in the “short-term,” the number of staff would probably not be up to the level it was five years ago. Quinn said he doesn’t know if Granberg will get a pension increase for the brief time he served as director, but Quinn said Granberg should “be happy with the pension that he earned in the legislature.”

And the legislature's anti-Blagojevich measures

By Bethany Jaeger
This Illinois House this morning reaffirmed the intent and power of a legislative committee that reviews rules coming out of the governor’s office. The power of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules was so contentious during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration that it earned its own spot in the article of impeachment against Blagojevich as an example of his “pattern of abuse of power.” After the committee repeatedly rejected his attempts to expand health care to middle-income families without legislative approval and without designated funding, Blagojevich deemed the committee as merely advisory.

The House approved HB 398, which Rep. Gary Hannig, the sponsor and a Litchfield Democrat, said is a way to ensure that JCAR continues to serve as a check on the executive branch. Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, a JCAR member from Skokie, added, “Gubernatorial excesses were an important part of the impeachment proceeding, and it’s perhaps that case that if this bill were made law previously, we wouldn’t have had these issues.”

Both chambers also have officially formed a special committee, with members of both chambers and both political parties, to review ways to reform state government and ethics. The official measure that creates the committee cites an “integrity crisis” created by two consecutive governors, Blagojevich and imprisoned former Gov. George Ryan.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said his previous efforts to advance reforms kept getting stuck in the Senate under then-President Emil Jones Jr., who has since retired.

“The first thing we’re going to do is to go to the bills that were passed in 2005 and 2007,” Madigan said on the House floor. “My record is real clear. I’ve been about the business of reforming the business of state government for several years now.”

The efforts Madigan mentioned included reforms to the way the state makes investment decisions on behalf of the five public employee pension systems, the process of entering into state contracts with businesses and the rules legislators and state officials must follow to avoid a conflict of interest. He also sent his chief legal counsel, David Ellis, to speak with Gov. Pat Quinn’s reform commission about changing state rules so that reports of ethical violations and punishments could be made public. According to a memo issued by Madigan’s office, Ellis also talked about tightening the process of granting waivers to the so-called revolving door law, which requires executive branch employees to wait one year before taking a job with a private firm that he or she either regulated or awarded a state contract.

Madigan said he expects the committee to meet “many times,” maybe twice a week, at the state Capitol. The scope is broad. “To me, all of Illinois government is open to change, every agency and everything that we do.”

Republicans didn’t like that the committees will have more Democrats than Republicans, reflecting the majority party’s rule of both chambers. “We certainly will cooperate with you in any way possible,” said GOP Rep. Bill Black of Danville. “But at some point, on something this important, I wish we could be treated as equals and not constantly as a minority to be accommodated.”

“This is too important to make it a committee controlled simply by one party,” he later added. “Both parties have had their problems. Both parties need to be a complete and equal partner to find a solution.”

From the Statehouse to the courtroom
Rep. George Scully, a Flossmoor Democrat, announced on the House floor that he has been appointed a circuit judge of Cook County, effective February 27. He’ll resign from the House that day. He’s served in the House since 1997 and was active in the electricity rate debate of 2007.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

$5 billion worse off and U-N-I-T-Y

By Hilary Russell
Just days after the conviction and removal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, members of the 96th General Assembly wasted no time Tuesday learning how dire the financial straits of Lincoln’s land really are. The state is on track to begin fiscal year 2010 saddled with a $9 billion deficit. That far exceeds the $4 billion estimate released during Blagojevich’s last few months in office. Comptroller Dan Hynes said the state’s financial security isn’t going to improve in the near future.

“It dwarfs any previous budget faced by a governor and essentially shows just how bad things have gotten,” Hynes said from his Statehouse office.

Several factors are to blame for the state’s fiscal crisis. The first is attributed to two former governors, Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan, both of whom Hynes said “neglected and ignored” budget issues year after year.

The second factor that leads Hynes to use the words “disturbing” and “unprecedented” is the discovery that the fiscal year ’09 budget brought in far less money than projected. “(It) was imbalanced from the beginning by several billion dollars,” Hynes added. “So we started our year in a hole.”

He said a third factor is the worldwide economic crisis that hurts the state’s investments.

Even with a federal stimulus package in the works and the possibility that Illinois could receive $3 billion, it would only offer a one- to two-year reprieve, leaving the state with at least a $6 billion deficit.

One of Blagojevich’s accusations was that the legislature wanted to get rid of him to raise taxes. Now, the question of a state income tax hike comes to mind, and Hynes, rather than directly address the possibility of an increase, said the government would have to make the first sacrifice before asking taxpayers for more money.

Hynes added that the backlog of Medicaid bills is one of the largest problems, causing health care providers to struggle as they try to maintain services in the absence of state reimbursements.

Gov. Pat Quinn has requested a one-month extension to examine the budget before he presents his annual budget address March 18.

New laws
By Jamey Dunn
The legislature sent SB 1132 to Quinn's desk Monday. He plans to sign the bill into law tomorrow afternoon in the state Capitol. The measure would restore funding to the secretary of state, the attorney general, the treasurer, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and several conservation projects geared toward Illinois habitats, fish and birds. The measure was approved last month, when Blagojevich was still in office, but it was held until a new governor was in place.

Quinn also signed his first bill, SB 2757, into law today. The bill addresses recent court cases by making a change to the Illinois smoking ban. Now, violations of the ban will be civil rather than criminal offenses and will be handled by the Illinois Department of Public Health. The bill also includes certain exemptions to the ban and describes the processes for issuing and appealing tickets.

"Unity and harmony"
By Jamey Dunn
In a public gesture of bipartisanship, all four legislative leaders met with Gov. Pat Quinn in his office Wednesday to discuss the problems facing the state.

The meeting itself was brief, under half an hour. Afterward, Quinn addressed reporters with House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and House Minority Leader Tom Cross. Before taking questions from the press, Quinn said that “we are going to be focusing on unity and harmony today.”

Quinn did not give specifics on how Illinois would address its budget deficit. He said a gasoline tax increase, which already has been proposed in HB 1, was not going to be ruled out. He also said it is very important that Illinois gets its “fair share” of the federal economic stimulus plan, which is why he made a trip to Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Senate leaders made another gesture of unity when they approved the resolution, SJR 1, to create a joint bipartisan committee on ethics reform. The resolution went forward with the understanding that the House would amend it to allow Radogno to appoint more members. As written, Cullerton would be allowed to appoint six members and Radogno four. She argued that ethics reform will require true bipartisanship, and Cullerton said he was open to having more Republicans on the committee.

Blagojevich's media tour continues

By Hilary Russell
Rod Blagojevich is still hitting the talk show circuit less than a week after he was impeached and removed from office. On Tuesday, he appeared for a second time NBC’s “Today” show and “Larry King Live,” as well as the “Rachel Maddow Show.” It was his interview with late-night talk-show host David Letterman that perhaps got the most laughs and showed a side of Blagojevich most probably haven’t seen lately — a sense of humor about his situation.

Letterman wondered aloud why former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was even on the show’s guest list. And despite having the perfect topic for his daily ‘Top Ten” list, Letterman instead decided to ask the man himself.

“Why exactly are you here, honest to God?” asked Letterman. Blagojevich laughed and replied, “You know, I’ve been wanting to be on your show in the worst way for the longest time.”
“Well you’re on in the worst way, believe me,” Letterman said.

Letterman went on to list former Illinois governor’s who ran into legal trouble — Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and George Ryan — before asking, “I mean, is this just part of the oath of office that you guys take? How is that possible? What is that?”

“Here’s my opinion,” Letterman continued. “I saw you on ‘The View,’ I saw you on the ‘Rachel Maddow Show,' I saw you on the 'Today' show, and every other show that is currently in production, and the more you talked and the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, ‘Oh this guy is guilty.’”

Blagojevich repeated much of the same statements he’s given during each of those appearances but remained upbeat throughout the interview, especially when Letterman asked about his hair.
“Do you use shampoo and conditioner? Or is it two separate things?”

“So you get a knock on the door one morning and it’s the FBI and they’re coming to arrest you, I mean what was that? What time did that happen?” Letterman asked. It was a little after six in the morning,” answered Blagojevich. “Six a.m. So you’re thinking … what do you think?” Letterman asked.

“Well I went to bed the night before feeling good about the future of Illinois,” said Blagojevich, prompting Letterman to laugh.

When the host asked Blagojevich what he’ll do now, Blagojevich said he’s looking for work. "This seems like a fun place to work," he said. “Oh yeah it's nothin' but fun here," said Letterman.
"Elvis performed here," added Blagojevich.

“Boy,” said Letterman before introducing his next guest, “I really wouldn’t give your troubles to a monkey on a rock.”