Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Waiting games

Gov. Rod Blagojevich got one step closer to enacting a recent campaign promise, but his administration still hasn't fulfilled two promises he made a year ago. Services for college students and veterans are waiting to be paid, as a result.

The Senate approved a $1 minimum wage increase 33 to 21 with 3 voting present. The measure would increase the minimum wage to $7.50, 25 cents more than a federal increase being debated in Congress. If approved by the Illinois House, the state minimum wage also would be to inflation from then on.

House approval is not a guarantee. House Speaker Michael Madigan said Tuesday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the bill, yet. “I’ve always supported increases in minimum wage. I’ve got a 35-year record of supporting those increases. I’m simply saying that we’re not certain what the proposal is.”

One sticky point in the Senate debate focused on whether businesses would still have the ability to pay part-time workers younger than 18 less than the minimum wage (50 cents less). Under Sen. Kimberly Lightford’s measure, all workers of all ages would be guaranteed $7.50.

While a minimum wage came closer to an increase, the governor’s first-term promises of giving college tuition grants and veterans health-care services are under scrutiny.

College tuition credits
Earlier Wednesday, a joint House committee heard from Michael Luke of the Illinois attorney general’s office about the sale of the state’s student loan portfolio. While the attorney general’s office was studying whether the Illinois Student Assistance Commission needed legislative approval to sell all of the nearly $4 billion asset, Luke said the commission’s staff and the governor’s legal staff were uncooperative in providing information.

That caused the attorney general’s office to issue an opinion based on limited information.

That drew criticism from some Republican committee members and raised questions about the governor’s new MAP Plus program. Last spring, the General Assembly designated $34.4 million to offer $250 a semester to students from middle-income families, but the commission does not yet have the money to pay for the new program and other initiatives contingent on the sale of the student loan portfolio. Commission chairman Donald McNeil said the process of selling, refinancing or partnering with private companies is two months behind, but the commission is confident the money will be there when it comes time to reimburse the 40 institutions that already credited the $250 credits to eligible students.

Veterans’ Cash
At the same time across the street, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs director received an earful about the delay of distributing $3 million made from a scratch-off lottery game. Programs for veterans, including $125,000 needed to open a shelter for homeless veterans, have been waiting. (I had to listen to a recording of the committee hearing because this was all happening simultaneously.)

The governor’s program to provide health care to some Illinois veterans is underused, so far. Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat and military veteran, said only 14 veterans were enrolled in the governor’s Veterans’ Care program. She also said the department has not yet defined how it would split up the $3 million generated by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn’s scratch-off lottery game, Veterans’ Cash. It’s supposed to help the state provide services for post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, long-term medical care and short-term medical care.

The Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Lombard, for example, is $90,000 short of the amount needed to open its doors, said Bob Adams, co-chair of the shelter’s board of directors. His co-chair, Dirk Enger, said, “The biggest problem is a lack of communication. Somewhere the ball has been dropped.”

Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Roy Dolgos said his staff has been working closely with the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules since August to draft rules for the governor's program and for distributing the money, but it’s taken so long because the process is new to the department and that they didn't want to mess it up.

More to come
The 94th General Assembly’s veto session has spread between downtown Springfield and the state Capitol a few blocks away because of renovations being done in the House and Senate chambers. Action will continue Thursday and then break for Thanksgiving before reconvening November 28. Still hanging out there are 1) a three-year freeze on electricity rates and 2) a pay raise for Illinois senators.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What this means

A lot of analysis will be kicked around as we try to understand what the November 7 election results mean for the future of this state, but here’s a starting point:

• Democrats swept the constitutional offices and will maintain majorities in the Illinois House and Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones Jr. might have taken the cake. His 31 Democrats and one Independent-turned-Democrat could have gained enough seats to secure a “super majority” of 36, the number of votes needed to override the governor’s vetoes and to approve some major items, such as the long-awaited school and road construction plans. But that doesn’t mean those major items will fly through the House, which is unlikely to gain enough seats to secure a three-fifths majority.

• Update: Key state legislative races that we covered in September proved to be tight. In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Democrat Fred Crespo has a lead over incumbent Terry Parke, a Hoffman Estates Republican who has served the area for more than two decades. Not all precincts had reported the last I checked. Downstate around Clinton, Marion and Jefferson counties, Democratic incumbent Kurt Granberg of Carlyle could edge out his repeat Republican opponent, John Cavaletto of Salem. But the race has yet to be called, with the latest results showing Granberg with 50 percent to Cavaletto’s 49 percent. That’s a difference of about 100 votes.

• A county-by-county map of unofficial AP results of the Illinois governors' race shows Republican Judy Baar Topinka won counties spanning the middle third of the state, while Blagojevich won many counties in deep southern and some western Illinois. He swept Lake, Cook and Will counties lining Lake Michigan. Green Party candidate Rich Whitney secured 10 percent of the vote statewide, ranging from 4 percent in counties surrounding St. Louis (he received 5 percent in many western Illinois counties) to 25 percent in Jackson County, where he lives in Carbondale. He received double digits in many central Illinois counties, but not as many in deep southern Illinois.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New term, same quotes

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s speech, as seen live on the Web, sounded like many other speeches I’ve heard him give. He recited his favorite anecdotes, right down to being the son of an immigrant steelworker. He said the guiding principle of his administration is getting things done for people and trying to make sure things are better for the next generation.

He even repeated the same quote from his Monday campaign stop at Springfield’s airport. He cited the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If,” in the closing stanza. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much. If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more you’ll be a man, my son.”

The only difference is that Monday, he asked his supporters to give him one more minute so he could continue to build on progress. Now he’s got four more years. We’ll be watching for that progress every minute he's in office.

Blame it on the money

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who can speak as a Republican Party member as well as a political analyst, said Gov. Rod Blagojevich won by having the advantage of more campaign money.

“To put on a successful campaign, we’re going to have to have adequate resources, not just a good candidate. I thought Judy Baar Topinka was a good candidate, but she didn’t have the financial help she needed.”

He said he was disappointed with the fund-raising from national and past Topinka supporters, which contributed to her delayed response to negative ads aired by the governor’s camp.

By Edgar’s count, Blagojevich outspent Topinka 5-to-1 and ran negative commercials, and unfortunately, many people rely on them for candidate information. “You can look at the numbers, and, I know people don’t like negative commercials, but when [Blagojevich] went negative on Judy, that changed the outlook of this election.”

In short, he said by defining Topinka as “George Ryan’s treasurer” — even though she’s a three-term, independently elected constitutional officer — Blagojevich inoculated himself from the potentially damaging news stories about an ongoing federal investigation into his administration’s hiring and contracting practices.

"That's the way it goes"

Topinka, characteristic coffee cup in hand, addressed her supporters with a hoarse voice as she congratulated incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his win. “That’s the way it goes. God bless him.”

Flanked by her son Joe, she said she ran her campaign the right way. “How many people can say they’ve been in politics for 26 years and have nothing but wonderful things to show for it? I mean, it’s just great.”

In true Judy Baar Topinka style, she continued to joke about everything from her coffee cup to her two dogs. But then she got a little sentimental. “You know I’ve loved every minute of it, even the tough times. I’ve really tried to serve honorably. I think there’s something to be said for honor, and integrity and sticking up for what you believe in. And whatever you can say about campaigns, we did it the right way. And it was honorable.”

She left the stage and the room, and security guards escorted her out of sight. Comments from Gov. Jim Edgar to come.

Topinka's coming

Just as I was going to post my last entry, I heard that Topinka's on her way down. I'll report back as soon as she speaks.

What I was going to say:
While more precincts are reporting vote returns, not many more people have shown up at Topinka’s election-night party. One that stuck out was Ron Gidwitz, Topinka’s opponent in the March primary. He now supports Topinka.

A more developing story comes from Carbondale, where there’s likely a happy Green Party candidate for governor, Rich Whitney. One of his campers, Jessica Bradshaw, has been blogging and expressing her excitement as Whitney’s percentages reach double digits in some counties. Unofficial results, such as those reported by CBS 2, show Whitney with 10 percent with 4,514 of 11,692 precincts reporting. That’s more than the required percentage to relax the requirements for future Green Party candidates to get on the ballet.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s election-night headquarters has been covered by University of Illinois at Springfield’s WUIS, which reports the governor could appear within the hour.

Birkett's response

People are starting to trickle into the ballroom, and Topinka’s campaign staffers have been buzzing back and forth between the basement and upstairs.Topinka hasn’t yet been sighted.

Joe Birkett, Topinka’s running mate and candidate for lieutenant governor, came in for a brief statement. Surrounded by reporters, he said it’s way too early and irresponsible to call the race based on exit polls before some polls — Kane County — haven’t even closed. He said it could discourage people who haven’t voted from driving to cast their ballots.

His statements echoed a press release received through e-mail. In it, campaign spokesman John McGovern said, “Recent history has shown that exit polls are not always accurate. An early call of any election depresses voter turnout and disenfranchises voters. That is unfortunate for the democratic process.”

Topinka's first response

As expected, reporters crowded Judy Baar Topinka’s campaign spokesman, John McGovern, shortly after 7:30 p.m. And as expected, he said the campaign had no official comment, yet. But he did say the campaign feels Topinka finished very strongly, despite the “unprecedented” amount of money spent on negative advertising that “dumbed down the discourse of this election.”

At that point, the crowd of reporters had grown and consumed the back hallway as they tried to hear McGovern’s statement. All he said was that the campaign was working to get a more comprehensive response.

Winner already?

Here I am, ready to cover exciting election results from Judy Baar Topinka’s camp at the Swissotel-Chicago, and what happens as soon as I prepare to write my first blog? ABC 7 and CBS 2 in Chicago report Gov. Rod Blagojevich wins reelection over Topinka.

Most polls closed only minutes before at 7 p.m., save Kane County polls that the Daily Herald reported opened more than an hour late.

Topinka’s campaigners and staffers are on their cell phones. There’s still a lot of ballot counting and confirming that has to be done. And it will still be interesting to find out how vote returns panned out across the state. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election night

I will be live blogging from Republican Judy Baar Topinka’s Election Night Party in Chicago Tuesday. You’re welcome to join me as I observe the colorful scenes of Topinka’s campaign and follow online vote returns of races throughout the state.

Here’s to the last day of 2006 General Election campaign ads!