Friday, August 29, 2008

The GOP change agent?

Illinois Republicans have come to expect the unexpected with U.S. Sen. John McCain, their presumptive nominee for president, but Friday’s announcement about his new running mate was flat out shocking to some members of the Illinois GOP.

Taking attention away from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, where U.S. Sen. Barack Obama accepted the presidential nomination in a stadium of 85,000 people the night before, McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. She’s a virtual unknown who has since been described as an “outsider” to Washington, D.C.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh no, another Dan Quayle,’” said Illinois Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, McCain’s chairman of legislators. He referred to the former Indiana senator who served as vice president under George H.W. Bush. “I thought, ‘Here’s another unknown, untested — from Alaska — that you question the electoral benefit it brings to the ticket.’”

But Watson said the more he learned about Palin and the more he listened to her speech, the more he believed that she would provide a fresh face with sincere character and an energy that the GOP ticket needs. (It’s easier to see her bio from the Illinois Republican Party’s Web site because her site has been down all day.)

Palin not only brings a whole new level of excitement to the ticket, said state Rep. Jim Durkin, but she also brings the gender issue back into the race.

“Barack Obama’s campaign had an opportunity to put a strong woman on as everybody’s president, and they decided not to do it. On a number of levels, I think it’s a great idea,” said Durkin, McCain’s national legislative co-chair. He added that Palin is a “strong woman” who has “good conservative credentials.”

Obama supporters immediately jumped on the fact that Palin has served about two years as governor and two years as a small-town mayor, saying it negates the argument that Obama lacks experience to run the country.

Illinois GOP delegates countered that by emphasizing her executive experience. “She’s made more decisions as an executive than Barack Obama has ever made in his days as a state senator and in the few moments that he’s been in the U.S. Senate,” Durkin said.

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican, said today during a Statehouse news conference that McCain’s pick of Palin, who broke the proverbial glass ceiling as the first female governor of Alaska, is classic McCain. “His pick today proves that he’s going to do what he wants to do and what he thinks is right and what he thinks is best, and not what some poll tells him and not what his consultants or his advisors tell him.”

On the other hand, Christopher Mooney, political studies professor with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Palin’s nomination seems to directly respond to the polls. “It appears, at this point, to be sort of cynical ploy to go after the Hillary Clinton supporters. That seems to be one of the main strategies. They saw a little thing in the polls that suggested that 20 percent of the Hillary supporters are not going to vote for Barack.”

But, Mooney said, she’s got more than youth and the token gender. She also offers expertise in dealing with energy issues and a set of ideals that could help compensate for McCain’s weakness in attracting conservative Republicans. Describing her as “aggressive in a positive way,” Mooney cited her lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for listing polar bears as a threatened species. “She got a public policy perspective. She’s got an ideology. And she’s going for it. She’s not a shrinking violet.”

And, he said, it’s hard to avoid the parallel between Palin and Geena Davis, who played the first female vice president who had to take over the U.S. presidency in the ABC show, Commander in Chief. “It just makes an interesting year that much more interesting. Hang on folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gaines' perspective

Editor’s note: This week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver and next week’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul are perfect reasons to stop and gain some perspective. Below is a conversation between Brian Gaines, a political science professor, and Craig Chamberlain, the University of Illinois news bureau social sciences editor. Gaines, a frequent contributor to our Illinois Issues magazine, has appointments in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s political science department and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He also is a research fellow at the Cline Center for Democracy. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Questions by Craig Chamberlain of the University of Illinois news bureau:

Many commentators in recent weeks have questioned why Barack Obama is not far ahead of John McCain in the polls, given that issues and circumstances are said to dramatically favor the Democrats this year. Do they have a point or are they missing something? Do you expect a close election in November?

I do. I’ve never bought the argument that this year should be an easy win for the Democrat. The country remains pretty evenly divided, and unpopular incumbents don’t always cast long shadows. John McCain is widely viewed as an independent-minded maverick, so he might be the ideal Republican candidate to withstand a slump in his party’s popularity. Also, retrospective unhappiness with the situation in Iraq doesn’t map neatly into an Obama vote. A lot of voters who wish the U.S. had never invaded still haven’t decided whether Obama or McCain is better qualified to make decisions about Iraq policy in the future.

After every convention, there’s talk about whether the candidate got the expected post-convention “bounce” in the polls. Does this have any significance?

The bounces are usually about the same size, so they’re irrelevant by mid-September. Political scientists are not even sure why they occur. It could be that the undecided get swept up in the enthusiasm of well-scripted love-fests. But it might also be the case that strong Republicans tune out the news (and refuse to talk to pollsters) while the headlines are full of Democratic convention news, and vice versa.

The news coverage of campaigns focuses constant and daily attention on polls, and most often national polls. How and in what ways is this misleading? What should we understand about polls and don’t?

I don’t think the margin of error is well understood. If a poll finds 47 percent saying they plan to vote for Obama, and it is described as accurate plus or minus 3 percent, that is suggesting a level of support anywhere in the range of 44 to 50 percent. And while it is probably true that the actual value (known only by God, not by any pollster) is in that interval, that calculation will fail, just by bad luck, about five out of every 100 times. Moreover, most pollsters do not calculate these intervals quite right. Polls usually need to be weighted to reflect demographic differences — such as in age, gender, or race —between the respondents and the target population.

Such weighting makes the margins of error larger, and so many polls report incorrect margins. There’s even more bad news: Response rates to polls have fallen over the years, and it seems likely that people who are willing to talk to pollsters, or even computers doing “robo-calls,” are different from those who won’t be polled, and in ways much harder to measure than age, gender, or race. The reported margin-of-error assumes that this is not true.

The extremely tight 2000 election, and resulting dispute over the Florida recount, raised some uncomfortable questions about the U.S. voting system. Have we adequately addressed those concerns? Are there other potential issues or controversies waiting in the wings in the event of another close contest?

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a foolproof electoral system. Blunders and fraud can creep into many different stages, from ballot design, to eligibility screening, to tabulation. Recounts often reveal serious problems. New Mexico’s handling of the 2000 presidential election was a shambles, but the state was spared scrutiny because all eyes were on Florida. Washington state had an orderly, uncontroversial recount in its U.S. Senate race that year. The secretary of state crowed that his state managed recounts properly, so watching them was “like watching grass grow.” Four years later, his successor oversaw a tumultuous triple recount in which new, previously overlooked ballots emerged late in the process, reversing the outcome. I’ll hope for a controversy-free election, but if it is as close as I expect, there will probably be serious problems somewhere. Personally, I worry about the huge growth of absentee voting. Hardly anyone ever points out that absentee ballots defy modern practice by not being secret. Secret ballots emerged in the 19th century as the main device to prevent vote buying and intimidation of voters. We’ve quietly rolled back that reform in the interest of boosting turnout, on the assumption that decentralized, non-secret ballots are secure. I’m not confident that’s right, and I expect a blowup over systematic abuse of absentee ballots by some campaign one of these days.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The devil is in the details with ethics reforms - UPDATED

Gov. Rod Blagojevich could have signed significant campaign contribution limits into law, targeting “pay to play politics” starting January 1 (CORRECTION: Both the legislation and the executive order would not have taken effect until January 1. I regret the error originally published in this post). Instead, he used his executive authority to change the plan, but advocates of the ethics reforms say it's questionable whether his actions have legal teeth that could punish those who break the rules.

But it’s hard to tell either way because the governor’s office has not filed the exact language on public record, yet. (UPDATE: One day later, the governor's veto message is now available here.) Some legislators believe the governor’s actions are controversial and intended to kill, or simply delay, implementation of the underlying bill, HB 824.

Through press release and a Chicago news conference, Blagojevich said he issued an executive order to enact ethics reforms that the legislature unanimously approved in May. (Listen here.) But he also used his amendatory veto power to change the legislation, sparking questions about the constitutionality of his use of executive powers. (Read background about the scope of the amendatory veto here.)

The ethics reforms originally were designed to target contractors who try to influence state business by donating to the political campaigns of elected officials. The idea is to prohibit businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000 from donating to political campaigns of constitutional officers who dole out those contracts. According to his news release, Blagojevich also wants to extend the ban to apply to individual legislators, political candidates and statewide political parties, as well.

At the same time, the governor used his amendatory veto powers to add new provisions to the ethics law. Some legislators, including Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest, said his changes could have merit and should be considered. But some legislators also believe that the way in which he proposes the changes poses a potential constitutional problem. His changes through an amendatory veto would:
  • Clarify the process of adopting legislative pay raises by requiring lawmakers to vote “yes” to accept a raise, which targets a confusing system subject to headlines this year;
  • Stop legislators from “double dipping” by working in another unit of government at the same time they’re serving in the General Assembly. But he would make exceptions for legislators who are teachers, school counselors, university instructors, police officers, firefighters or “elected officials.” Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat, said the provision aims directly at Chicago legislators;
  • And require more detailed disclosure of lobbying work done by legislators or their spouses.

The General Assembly can accept or reject the governor’s amendatory vetoes, but either way, the reforms included in the governor’s executive order will apply to all state agencies January 1.

Cindy Canary said she met with the governor’s office this morning and that while she’s pleased that Blagojevich enacted the provisions within HB 824, she’s also concerned that the executive order lacks teeth and fails to pass constitutional muster. She is director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in Chicago and helped draft the legislation. Her concern, she said, is that “the legislature doesn’t police how the governor or anybody else implements their executive orders. Those are kind of in-house rules. And they don’t have penalties.”

She also called the amendatory veto an “interesting maneuver” because it would enact brand new policies without allowing the legislature to debate or change the proposals. For instance, she questions the effect of expanding the contributions ban to state political parties. “State parties don’t make contracts using public money. So I’m not sure that it’s a remedy that fits the problem.”

(UPDATE: The governor's veto message, now available, says:
Given that all constitutional officers and members of the General Assembly participate in creating, funding, directing, and overseeing state contracts, this ethics law must bar political contributions to each uniformly in order to achieve the desired goal of a fair and open procurement process, stripped of any conflicts of interest. In addition to the failure to include governmental actors critical to the procurement process, House Bill 824 leaves a gaping loophole, permitting covered state contractors to contribute to political committees of state parties, which are not barred from funneling the contributions back to the government officials in question. Only by strengthening the contribution ban will the citizens of the state gain greater assurance that government contractors will not endeavor to unduly influence the system ... A more comprehensive approach, therefore, not only serves the public interest in eliminating potential undue influence and the appearance of such influence, but also strengthens the state’s interest that is needed to override the business entities’ First Amendment interest in contributing to political candidates.)

Canary added that the so-called double dipping provision seems inconsistent that legislators could work as firefighters or township officials but not sanitation workers. She named many constitutional questions, which could be problematic because legislators can either accept or reject his changes. Because they can’t modify the changes, Canary said, “I really think this is the kind of policy that is better done in a public hearing with a lot of input and thoughtful consideration and very serious scrutiny to avoid the constitutional pitfalls and unintended consequences.”

The timing also is curious, said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who is in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. “I find it curious that he’s chosen the first day of the Democratic Convention to do this with most of the Springfield reporters out of town, with most of the legislators and other advocates for different policy considerations in Denver,” Lang said from his cell phone. “He may say it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think anybody’s going to buy that.”

His perception of today's announcement? “The timing is all about trying to make something happen that he thinks will have some repercussions and doing it at a time when he can minimize those repercussions.”

The legislative process also is at play, here. The governor’s office had to act by August 29, or else the bill would have become law without his signature. Brian Williamsen, Blagojevich's spokesman, also said the governor "has been looking forward to taking this positive action for some time."

Senate Republicans perceive the governor’s actions as a potential poison pill, regardless of whether they believe the changes could have merit. “I can’t comment on something I haven’t seen other than it’s controversial,” said Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. “And what it’s done is jeopardize the whole thing instead of just doing the right thing and signing the bill that the General Assembly put on his desk — and then bringing forth any other ideas he might have.”

The governor, in a news release, said he waited more than three years for the General Assembly to send him a vehicle that he could act on. But one more question remains: Why did he have to wait for the legislature to send him legislation when he could have issued an executive order to prevent pay-to-play with or without legislation on his desk? All other constitutional officers already had used their in-house rules to prevent such campaign contributions.

The one sure thing, Canary said, is, now that Blagojevich publicly stated that he’s enacting a ban on pay-to-play politics, “everybody’s watching.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

By-my-side Biden

Illinois’ Old State Capitol got another cameo in the Hollywood-like narrative of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama as he tries to get to the White House as the first African American president. His first appearance with his new Democratic running mate, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, resembled the February 2007 event in downtown Springfield, when Obama announced his candidacy. A larger crowd gathered in the 88-degree heat, the polar opposite of the 10-degree weather last year.

Obama and Biden took the stage on the Old State Capitol grounds about 12 hours after the Obama campaign sent a massive text message to supporters announcing his selection for vice president. Both men emphasized focusing on family, overcoming adversity and repairing economic conditions to about 35,000 people, according to Obama’s campaign Web site.

They attempted to weave common threads through their backgrounds, both coming from meager beginnings and living “America’s story” on the national stage. Obama introduced Biden as a family man who grew from tragedy, when his first wife and a daughter were killed in a car accident several years ago.

Tragedy tests us – it tests our fortitude and it tests our faith. Here’s how Joe Biden responded. He never moved to Washington. Instead, night after night, week after week, year after year, he returned home to Wilmington on a lonely Amtrak train when his Senate business was done. He raised his boys — first as a single dad, then alongside his wonderful wife Jill, who works as a teacher. He had a beautiful daughter. Now his children are grown and Joe is blessed with five grandchildren. He instilled in them such a sense of public service that his son, Beau, who is now Delaware’s attorney general, is getting ready to deploy to Iraq. And he still takes that train back to Wilmington every night. Out of the heartbreak of that unspeakable accident, he did more than become a Senator — he raised a family. That is the measure of the man standing next to me. That is the character of Joe Biden.

Read the full speech here.

Biden framed Obama as the agent for change after eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Barack Obama and I believe, we believe with every fiber in our being, that our families, our communities as Americans, there’s not a single solitary challenge we cannot face if we level with the American people. And I don’t say that to say it; history, history has shown it. When have Americans ever, ever, ever let their country down when they’ve had a leader to lead them?
See U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's comments about the Biden selection here:

Biden is a safe choice for the Obama ticket, according to Christopher Mooney, professor of political studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “He doesn’t have the big wow factor, but Obama’s got the wow factor. So, it’s not what he needs. He needs somebody safe, and Biden is safe.”

Biden also has foreign policy experience, which has been described as Obama’s weak spot. Biden is serving his sixth term in the Senate, where he started in 1972 at age 29. He chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and serves on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Combatting a potential contradiction in his campaign, Obama said that Biden “has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him.”

Biden twice ran for president, most recently against Obama in the Democratic primary. Biden dropped out of the ’08 race after the Iowa caucus and after making a comment that Obama was “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy ...” He later clarified that his word choice misrepresented his point that Obama was a storybook candidate.

While Biden joked that he talks “too colloquially” and too much, the vice presidential selection generally doesn’t drastically help or hurt presidential candidates, said Mooney. Nor does it sway many voters. “This is the one time it matters. He’ll go to the convention, and they’ll take pictures. And then they’ll put him on a bus, and he’s going to drive through Nebraska, Kansas and Alabama or wherever they’re going to send him. Unless he says something off the cuff that’s embarrassing, it won’t be a problem.”

Springfield plays a role
Using the Old State Capitol in Springfield as a backdrop is “good politics,” said Tom Schwartz, Illinois State historian at the event. It inevitably draws a comparison between Obama and Abraham Lincoln. Schwartz said Obama is “very much like Lincoln, reminding people that politics is messy and there’s a gamesmanship to it but that at it’s core, it is meant to reflect the ideals of the people that it represents — and that it is participatory, that people need to be part of it. And so, in that sense, he and Lincoln are on the same page.”

And using Lincoln as a backdrop doesn’t hurt when the event attracts national and international media.

Springfield emergency responders also played a role. Individuals stood in lines that wrapped around the downtown area before gates opened, and once they got on the grounds, they waited another two hours for Obama to appear on stage.

The 88-degree heat mixed with sun, humidity and crowded proximities to overwhelm between 30 and 40 people, according to Lt. Bill Neale of the Springfield Police Department. He said heat exhaustion and related injuries led local responders to seek help from the Springfield Fire Department, Riverton emergency services and the American Red Cross.

One person who did not play a role was Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was in Chicago at a deployment event of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

One amendatory veto slips through

Starting in January, all parents will be able to decide whether to extend their health insurance coverage to their children up to age 26. Veterans will be able stay on their parent’s policies until age 30.

The Illinois Senate on Tuesday agreed with House to accept Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s changes to legislation he made through his amendatory veto powers.

The Senate approved House Bill 5285, but it rejected changes the governor made to House Bill 4201, which Blagojevich changed to extend property tax exemptions to all veterans with service-connected disabilities. The Senate failed to secure enough votes, with 15 voting present as a way to show they don’t oppose the concept. But many do oppose the governor’s method of changing legislation to initiate major new policies without debate.

Sen. Dan Rutherford, a Chenoa Republican, voted against his own bill because he said the governor’s amendatory veto prevents legislators and citizens from dealing with the policy in a public forum. “We’re in a political debate here,” he said. “We’re not doing this as a good public policy process.”

Rutherford also said he hopes one of the governor’s amendatory vetoes ends up in court, which could help define a rather vague power in the state Constitution. His comments echo statements made by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat who said last week that the courts could help “answer this question that has been so contentious between the two branches ever since 1971,” when the current Constitution took effect. Read more background here.

Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat, said during floor debate that the governor’s changes to let adult dependents remain on their parents' insurance policies is an improvement. “This is a great opportunity to address a major challenging issue for parents and families,” he said. “It also gives employers a chance to provide this coverage, and employers don’t have to pay for it.”

But several Republicans said that the new law could negatively affect small businesses. While the young adults can be among the healthiest policyholders, Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, said it could be cheaper for parents to buy individual policies for their dependents rather than lump them in with their group policies and raise the price for their employers.

Other amendatory vetoes are expected, particularly on ethics legislation that Blagojevich has repeatedly said he looks forward to “improving.” He has to act before August 29, or the original version automatically becomes law. He also has said he could change as many as 50 bills.

Watch for Illinois Issues magazine's September print edition to gain more context about this and previous governors' uses of the amendatory veto power.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The start of a new beginning

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is losing his biggest ally in Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who announced his upcoming retirement this afternoon. When his term ends in January, he'll end a 35-year career in the Illinois General Assembly.

Jones' departure further challenges Blagojevich in advancing his agenda. “[Jones] certainly was his No. 1 ally. He was the Gen. Patton to his presidency,” says Sen. Donne Trotter, a Senate majority caucus whip. He describes Jones as a wartime leader. “We've literally been at war for the past few years. So he's been a field general, and he's going to be hard to replace.”

Election of a new Senate president requires a majority vote by chamber members and results in a two-year term. Numerous Senate Democrats are in line trying to win the position, which controls a leadership team and determines the flow of legislation, including which measures get called for debate.

Under Jones, the Senate Democrats increased membership from 27 members to an exceptional 37 members, while Republicans have just 22. Yet Jones' caucus includes subgroups with diverse interests and allegiances, challenging his ability to utilize his “super majority” on politically sensitive initiatives.

Jones also struggled to accomplish his long-standing passion of education funding reform, although he did team with Blagojevich last year to grant the largest single-year increase for education funding by $400 million. But that's not the reform he sought for so many years. He previously supported relieving local property taxes and relying more on the state income taxes to fund public education. He changed positions in 2006 to support Blagojevich's proposal to levy gross receipts tax on business profits. Jones supported it, in part, because Blagojevich repeatedly promised to veto income or sales tax increases.

But Jones' legacy does include being the longest serving Democratic Caucus leader since 1970. He also championed such social justice issues as requiring interrogations to be videotaped in death penalty cases.

And life will go on in the Illinois Senate, potentially with one of Jones' proteges at the helm. Another of his accomplishments as a leader, Trotter says, is that he allowed his members to grow. “He had the special ability of seeing the strengths of every individual and has allowed them to flourish,” especially U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who's slated to accept the Democratic presidential nomination within a week. But those who are gearing up in an attempt to lead the state Senate have been well-trained and are well-positioned to take over, he says.

Names in the mix include some of Jones' soldiers: Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago, Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago, Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan and Sen. James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville.

Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park isn't in Jones' leadership team, but he has led some high-profile pieces of legislation, including ethics reforms and pension obligation bonds. Other legislators with independent streaks also have shown potential interest. Sen. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston issued a release saying he hopes to be a "major part" of an effort for more transparent leadership that works towards consensus.

Senate Republicans are hoping the new leader, whoever it is, opens the door to improved communication. “We've always been willing to walk through the door, but the Senate president and the governor have walked in lockstep together,” says Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. “And that has, unfortunately, not meant good things for Illinois.”

The Blagojevich-Jones alliance pushed for expanded health care, increased education funding and increased minimum wage, all of which Blagojevich said wouldn't have happened without Jones. Yet many of their other proposals have stalled in the House under Speaker Michael Madigan.

Even the House could feel a fresh, new-start feeling when the new legislative session starts in January, says Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and deputy majority leader. “There will be, sort of a, 'It's a new day. Let's start over. Let's be positive about it.”

Selecting a new leader, however, will be a politically charged event. The Senate Democratic Caucus must select someone who can serve as a field general in an ongoing war, as well as someone who can balance the need to compromise with Madigan and Blagojevich at the same time he or she advocates for the platforms and the beliefs of such a diverse caucus.

We'll have plenty more about the potential replacements in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where's the Party?

The Illinois State Fair kicked off the political campaign season, with Democrats and Republicans rallying on the fairgrounds for the past two consecutive days. They’re rearing up for national conventions at the end of this month and beginning of next. Illinois Democrats hope to ride the coattails of the presumptive presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat, but that doesn’t mask the divisions of state party leaders. The Illinois GOP has an opportunity to win over disgruntled voters frustrated by the Democrats in power. On the other hand, the party recognizes the challenge of gaining momentum while the “Obama factor” is anticipated to draw a record number of Democrats to the polls November 4.

The strengths and weaknesses of each party were on full display during their State Fair rallies.

On a packed lawn, Democrats had a huge draw to hear New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former presidential candidate with a national and international resume. He’s now a hard-core Obama supporter, visiting Illinois to support Obama and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Richardson substituted the words “dynamic” and “diverse” to replace the word “dysfunctional” when describing the Illinois Democratic Party. He downplayed internal tensions by saying: “I’m a governor. I have, with my legislature, differences. There’s that control tension that I think is healthy in a democracy.”

But state Comptroller Dan Hynes, a Democrat, indicated he thinks the tension is suffocating rather than healthy. He cast a harsh light on the party leaders while speaking at the Democratic County Chairmen’s Association Wednesday morning, saying the existing state of affairs in Illinois represent “the worst of times.” He cited this year’s $1.4 billion in budget cuts that cripple state services and said it’s not a policy problem, it’s a personality problem personified by power clashes between the governor, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The division carried over that afternoon to the State Fair during Governor’s Day (a.k.a. Democrat Day). The only other statewide officeholder to attend was Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Hynes didn’t attend. Neither did Madigan, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn or Secretary of State Jesse White.

The front of the audience was filled with busloads of supporters holding blue signs that said, “Pass the jobs bill today.” But when the governor rose to speak, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union booed and waved green picket signs that read, “Governor, don’t cut our health care.” They chanted as they passed through the audience, interrupting the governor’s speech.

The boos faded as AFSCME employees exited the lawn, and they were replaced with cheers as the governor yelled over the commotion: “I would ask our friends in AFSCME to join us in our crusade. They’re going to keep their jobs. They’re going to keep their health care, but now start helping us create jobs for other people and provide health care to other people across our state.”

He later said AFSCME was just using a political ploy to draw attention during contract negotiations with the administration. Union members argue that the cost of their health insurance continues to increase while their wages and their manpower is stagnant, at best.

Republicans aren’t much better off. While they have ripe opportunity to take advantage of the unpopular Democratic governor and the Democratically controlled legislature, GOP candidates have an obvious uphill battle to grab attention and prove their relevancy as an option for disgruntled voters.

The GOP leaders were quick to point out, however, that the Democrats didn’t even have their state party chair, Michael Madigan, present. The GOP also had a few other things the Democrats lacked: American flags, people dressed in red, white and blue, the national anthem and an opening prayer. But the Republicans had an emptier director’s lawn.

Given that Republicans are in the minority in both the Illinois House and Senate and don’t hold a single statewide office, they have the advantage of declaring innocence in the state’s problems. “They’ve completely dropped the ball and have had an awful six years,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. But he acknowledged that the GOP needs to revive itself and be stronger advocates for lower taxes and reforms.

He and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson repeatedly blamed Blagojevich, as well as Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Michael Madigan, for a lack of progress on a balanced budget, a capital construction program, an ethics reform package and a host of pension and Medicaid reforms.

“They enable him to do the things that he’s done over the past six years to put the state in the fiscal crisis that we’re in today,” Watson said of his legislative counterparts. “They enable him. There has to be a political price to pay. The voters have got to understand, the public has to understand the difference between what we believe in and what they believe in.”

The one thing all parties agree on is that the state needs a capital plan to repair schools, roads and bridges.

Madigan announced a potential agreement to lease the Illinois Lottery as a way to finance an infrastructure program, seeming to inch closer to a compromise with Blagojevich. But Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said his caucus already negotiated a deal and approved two capital plans, a $36 billion version and a $25 billion version. He added that he hadn’t seen any proposal in writing from Madigan.

The House later approved a roughly $1.1 billion capital bill that would draw federal funds that are waiting in Washington, D.C., for a state match. Republicans, however, called it a false hope and said the plan fails to give approval for the state to spend enough money. “Even if you thought last night was real, it doesn’t work,” Cross said. “It is a very small component of a bigger picture that has to be developed and be painted. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t work.”

Watch Illinois Issues magazine and this blog for more about a capital plan.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The right thing, or the wrong way?

There is a process. And House Speaker Michael Madigan will never let this or any governor forget that. He believes in the legislature as an institution, and the he will not stand by if anyone tries to circumvent the legislative process. The House took action tonight that some believe could lead to another court challenge of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s executive authority. Others truly agree with the governor’s changes, which include expanding health insurance options to young adults and giving property tax breaks to injured veterans.

But the two changes, along with some of Blagojevich’s previous agenda items, bring to light two fundamental questions about the policymaking process and the legislative prerogative:
  • What is the scope of the executive power to use an amendatory veto to change legislation other than for minor changes?
  • And what is the rulemaking authority of the executive branch, and is that power limited by a legislative panel’s power to review the proposed rules?

They’re both questions that have been asked since the adoption of the 1970 Illinois Constitution. My boss and executive editor of Illinois Issues magazine, Dana Heupel, asked, “How far can governors go with amendatory vetoes?” in 1999, when he wrote from the Statehouse for Copley News Service. In that article, he analyzes then-Gov. George Ryan’s use of the amendatory veto to change how generic drugs could be approved for use in Illinois.

“His amendatory veto of the generic drug bill, along with others he has issued, will set in motion a process that House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has followed for a decade because he believes governors sometimes abuse their authority in changing legislation. ‘What he’s concerned about is a preemptive strikes by the governor’s office on the work of the legislature,’ said Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown.”

The speaker’s position hasn’t changed.

That sets up this summer’s controversy. Blagojevich is embarking on what he calls a “rewrite to do right” campaign. He recently said he’ll change some 50 bills. See details of the first two amendatory vetoes at the bottom of this post.

The House tonight approved two of the governor’s amendatory vetoes, and some legislators supported because they agreed with the governor’s changes, while others — House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, among them — voted to accept the governor’s amendatory vetoes so that the issue could land in court.

Currie, a Chicago Democrat, chairs a special House Rules Committee that carries out Madigan’s longstanding process of determining whether the changes are germane to the original intent of the legislation. If the committee members think the change violates the intent, then the bill usually dies. On the other hand, if there’s a motion to override or to accept the governor’s changes, then the measure goes straight to the floor for a vote. It also needs approval by the Senate.

Tonight’s vote to accept the governor’s changes about health insurance and veterans’ property taxes, then, allows the separation of powers to be studied, again, Currie said on the House floor.

“I think that the lack of clarity from the court decisions may mean that it’s time for a second crack for the judicial branch. Maybe we ought to invite the question before the courts whether this particularly amendatory veto, for example, does go beyond the scope of that authority provided in the Constitution. For that reason, I would suggest that an eye vote may help us answer this question that has been so contentious between the two branches ever since 1971.”

The intent of the delegates at the 1970 constitutional convention was to allow the governor to correct technical errors or minor drafting mistakes, not give him or her carte blanche to totally rewrite legislation, said Charlie Wheeler, longtime Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

To this day, however, the state Constitution does not specify the scope of the amendatory veto power. Courts have ruled that the governor is limited in that he or she can’t completely rewrite legislation and can’t change the fundamental purpose of bills. But what qualifies as changing the purpose of legislation is open to interpretation, leading numerous governors to try to use the power as broadly as possible.

“There are bounds beyond which a governor can’t go, but this particular issue before us isn’t one of them,” Wheeler said.

Blagojevich said at a Statehouse press conference tonight that he believes the Constitution is very clear. “The governor has complete opportunity to be able to take bills like that and rewrite them, and in this particular case, expand them and widen them. And the General Assembly can then choose to approve or not approve or ignore what I did. To the credit of the House of Representatives, they acted on it. And they voted in favor of that [health insurance] expansion, and it’s pretty good.”

Wheeler, who spoke with me before the House accepted Blagojevich’s first two amendatory vetoes, referred to the governor’s “rewrite to do right” campaign as the “rewrite to screw things up campaign,” basically with the intent to make Madigan look like an obstructionist. But Wheeler stressed that the debate about Blagojevich’s amendatory vetoes is deeper than a manifestation of the personality battles and power struggles between Madigan and Blagojevich. It’s more of a constitutional question about the checks-and-balances system between the legislative and the executive branches.

“In my mind, I think Madigan has the better argument because Madigan has a long history as somebody who’s very concerned about legislative process,” Wheeler said. “He’s concerned about the institution. He cares about that stuff. And Blagojevich has sort of a shorter history of following the Constitution, the statutes, administrative regulations, when they’re convenient. And when they’re not convenient, ‘Hey, they’re advisory.’”

That’s exactly the argument Blagojevich used when a bipartisan panel of legislators rejected his previous health care expansions. The governor tried to use his executive authority to expand state-sponsored health care to middle-income adults, but the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules rejected the plan because members believed there was no money to cover the health care expansion and that the administration lacks authority to initiate the plan without going through the legislative process. The governor said he would expand the program anyway because the panel only served an advisory role. The expansions, however, landed in court and actually were stopped.

To send a message that the governor can’t enact such programs without legislative oversight, Madigan started attaching language to the end of bills that would require the administration’s proposed rules to come back before the General Assembly before they could be enacted.

While the Constitution is unclear about some executive powers and legislative oversight, it remains crystal clear that Madigan will do whatever necessary to preserve the legislative prerogative.

Here are the two amendatory vetoes Blagojevich so far has issued and that the House has accepted:

HB 5285, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Chuck Jefferson of Rockford and Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago.
Original intent: College students could stay on their parents’ health insurance plans for a year if they took a medical leave of absence or reduced their course loads to part time because of an illness or injury.
Governor’s AV: All parents could decide whether to extend their health insurance coverage to their children up to age 26. Veterans could stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 30.
HB 4201, sponsored by Republicans Rep. Keith Sommer of Morton and Sen. Dan Rutherford of Chenoa.
Original intent: Extended a tax increment-financing district in the Village of Downs.
Governor’s AV: Extend property tax exemptions to all veterans with a service-connected disability certified by the U. S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The more disabled they’re labeled by the federal system, the higher the property tax exemption.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Legal grounds

The Illinois legislature continued a trend by ignoring the governor’s requests and, instead, focusing on some hot-button issues that grab headlines before the November elections. Gov. Rod Blagojevich called a special legislative session for today to focus on education funding reform, but not a peep was heard during proceedings. “Today is a joke. No agenda. No bill. No plan,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. The legislature has nothing to do when no legislation is proposed, added Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Here are two other items that grabbed the spotlight:

A legislative review panel unanimously rejected Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s idea to move about 140 state jobs from Springfield to Harrisburg, three hours apart. But the vote isn’t binding, and the governor maintains that he intends to move the jobs as an economic boost to the southern Illinois town.

But the bipartisan, legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s six-hour hearing last month and the “pounds of evidence” generated might not go to waste, says Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat chairing the commission and author of the law setting a review process for closing state facilities. The legal and economic data provided as a result of this process could be used as evidence in court.

Legal challenges could come from the state legislators representing the Springfield area, as well as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 or the local Teamsters union representing the affected employees in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Public Safety.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin adds that the unanimous vote by the commission demonstrates that the public review process works and that it sets a precedent for future moves. “We’re already hearing rumors of other moves, and I think this is just as important as the next one or the one after that,” Davlin said after the committee vote. “I think it’s obvious that this is what this commission was formed for, to take a look at the economic impact. And I think they spoke overwhelmingly.”

The panel voted 12-0 to recommend that the administration not move the Division of Traffic Safety from Springfield to Harrisburg and that it, instead, look for alternative locations within the City of Springfield that would be cheaper than its current lease.

“Does this decision legally inject or confirm what the administration does to the point where it can stop the administration from doing it? According to the law, the answer is no,” Schoenberg says. “However … given the overwhelming volume of evidence that we heard on the economic and legal issues associated with this proposal, I personally think it would be unwise and contrary to the public’s interest.”

Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican on the commission, said the process has highlighted questions about the fiscal merit, the political motivations and the human impact on the employees.

The administration, however, is looking at other evidence to the contrary, suggesting the move will save money and help out an economically depressed area. Here’s the governor’s statement, provided by e-mail this afternoon: “We will be moving forward with the geographic relocation of IDOT’s Division of Traffic Safety to Harrisburg, as previously mentioned. We’ll be working with the employees who do not choose to relocate, within the terms of their contracts, to find positions for them in Springfield. We will follow all appropriate timelines and guidelines as we move forward.”

Watch this blog for more about legal questions surrounding the governor’s executive authority.

But as part of a checks and balances system established by the state Constitution, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability may be unable to issue binding recommendations, Schoenberg said. What that means for the IDOT proposal, he said: “The facts of the case point heavily towards the commission’s recommendation. Ultimately, if the executive branch chooses to go in a different direction, there may be someone who takes an exception with that.”

No pay raises
The Senate finally agreed with the House to reject granting about $1.1 million in pay raises to legislators, executive officers and top agency officials. But they still got a 3.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year.

Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Sens. Donne Trotter and Kwame Raoul, all Chicago Democrats, voted present. The remaining 47 senators on the floor voted to reject the raises recommended by the Compensation Review Board. Raoul voted present because, as he said during floor debate, the board was formed to take the issue of legislative pay raises out of the legislature’s arena. “It should not be my decision as to how much I am compensated.”

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson called the Compensation Review Board a “cover” that fails to take the issue out of the legislative purview. “State government is in shambles. Nothing is getting done … It’s just not the time for anyone in state government to get a pay increase.”

In the balcony, a group of people wearing turquoise T-shirts visited to urge legislators to refund $43 million in budget cuts affecting substance abuse and treatment services.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ready, set, repeat

Reminiscent of last year, a whole host of state policy issues remain up in the air throughout the summer. Inaction mostly rests on the shoulders of Democrats, who are repeating history by agreeing on practically nothing. The main culprits are Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, each of whom blames the other for lack of action. Meanwhile, Illinois is in its ninth year without a capital construction plan, campaign funding reform remains dormant, many state services and agencies are operating with stagnant or decreased funding and long-term costs of health care and pensions continue to compound.

Legislators and the governor will return to Springfield this week with lots to talk about, but little progress is anticipated. Here’s a chronological list of activities with some context.

Today: Comptroller Dan Hynes issued a statement that he would not cut the checks for pay raises for state legislators and officers if they are enacted because the General Assembly never gave him authority to spend the necessary money. “We cannot implement the pay raises without an appropriation. But more importantly, I am of the opinion that this is no time for pay raises,” he said in a release, citing budget cuts for social services and Medicaid providers. The House rejected the pay raises, but the Senate has yet to do so. In the larger scheme of things, the pay raises simply are a battle of public perception. While such state services as substance abuse treatment struggle to meet demand because of $43 million in budget cuts, it would look disingenuous if legislators received their annual 3 percent cost-of-living adjustments at the same time they receive significant pay raises, costing about $1.1 million just for constitutional officers, legislators and top state agency officials, according to the comptroller’s office. That doesn't count pay raises for judges.

Tuesday: Expect Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s idea to move about 140 state employee positions from Springfield three hours south to be rejected by a bipartisan legislative review panel. Expect that rejection to be followed by the governor’s statement that the move is going to go forward, anyway. Lots of union-backed employees will be up in arms again. Meanwhile, they’re still working under last year’s contract with the state while their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, remains gridlocked (click this link and scroll down) with the administration. Among the key sticking points are employee wages and employee contributions to health care and pension benefits.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Gov. Rod Blagojevich called legislators back to the Capitol to address two major issues: funding for education on Tuesday and funding for capital construction projects Wednesday. But neither session meets until late in the afternoon, giving legislators time throughout the day to attend various events at the annual State Fair in Springfield. Governor’s Day (a.k.a. Democrats’ Day) is Wednesday and Republican Day is Thursday. Watch for political fireworks off stage.

Ongoing: The governor says he’ll “rewrite to do right,” his slogan for changing agreed-upon bills to include his agenda. If the General Assembly rejects his changes, then the underlying bill dies. So far, he’s changed two bills. One would allow all adults up to age 26 to remain on their parents’ health insurance plans. The original intent was limited to college students who took a medical leave or who reduced their course loads to part time because of an illness or injury. They would have been covered for a year on their parents' plans. A second amendatory veto would extend property tax exemptions to all veterans with service-connected disabilities certified by the U. S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The original bill regarded a tax increment financing district in the Village of Downs. Blagojevich has said he will continue amending numerous bills in his Rewrite to Do Right campaign, “to take positive action on legislation that has been sent to him by the General Assembly,” according to a statement from Brian Williamsen, his spokesman.

August 29: Later this month marks the deadline for the governor to sign, change or reject ethics reforms sent to his desk in June. His office repeatedly has said he doesn’t think the ethics reforms go far enough. One potential amendment could include banning state contractors from donating to statewide political parties. The original legislation, which received unanimous approval by the General Assembly in May, only prevented state contractors holding contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to statewide officeholders who sign the contracts.

Also coming up: One of the House Democrats’ point people on education, Rep. Mike Smith of Canton, announced that he’ll host a series of public hearings to consider a proposal to abolish property taxes for school funding by 2010. It’s been floated by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat who previously threatened to run against Blagojevich for governor in the absence of education funding reforms. Meeks didn’t run, but he also didn’t get what he wanted. So here we go again. Add education funding reform to a huge pile of politically sensitive Statehouse issues that likely will grab some headlines but will remain stalled, at least before the November elections.