Ends and Means: The Hot Rod Express speeds toward a Budget Deficit behemoth

Feb 1, 2003

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

"I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Repeating that optimistic mantra, a bouffant-haired figure shovels coal into the firebox of a speeding locomotive bearing a “Hot Rod Express” nameplate.

Looming ahead, a gargantuan figure wearing a “Budget Deficit” T-shirt sprawls, bound, across the tracks. “Think again,” says the behemoth.

Appearing in the Inauguration Day edition of the Springfield State Journal-Register, Chris Britt’s editorial cartoon neatly summarizes the storyline of the drama that will unfold in the Statehouse and across Illinois in coming months: Can Gov. Rod Blagojevich deliver on the promise of his campaign in the face of the state’s worst fiscal crisis in memory?

Whatever others may think, the new governor certainly believes he can, and if energy and enthusiasm are the criteria, he’ll succeed hands down. In a well-written, superbly delivered inaugural address, Blagojevich entertained no doubts that he can meet the challenge. Relatively short at little more than 15 minutes, the address was more inspirational than informational, a stirring appeal to some 5,000 dignitaries and guests in the capital city’s convention center — and to thousands of others watching and listening around the state — to believe in a better future for Illinois and to trust in the new governor to lead the way.

Invoking the goodness of Illinois’ people and the strengths of its families as his inspiration, Blagojevich — the first Democrat elected governor in 30 years — pledged a new beginning.

“I did not run for governor to be a caretaker,” he said. “I did not run to manage a state of decline. I did not run to maintain the status quo. I am not here to serve just the few. The mandate we claim today ... is simple and clear: no more business as usual, no more cutting corners, no more ducking the tough choices. It is time for a change, and make no mistake about it, today is the first day of a new beginning for Illinois.”

Blagojevich acknowledged that the state’s fiscal problems are graver than he suspected, with a budget deficit now projected at nearly $5 billion, part of a legacy that includes, he said, “an economy where too many are left behind, a health care system that leaves our elderly at the mercy of drug companies, rising tuition costs that make the dream of college unattainable for too many families and a system of corruption that has become too commonplace, too accepted and too entrenched.”

“This is a moment of crisis,” he said. “Some will say it is time to merely manage problems, not solve them. ... I say we must move forward as Illinois always has done in times of crisis. We will meet our challenges head on and we will do it by rejecting the politics of mediocrity and corruption. You voted for change, and I intend to deliver.”

The governor vowed to rewrite state ethics laws and renewed his frequent pledge to close the budget gap without raising income or sales taxes, even while moving ahead with important initiatives.

“We will balance the budget, and we will end the budget games,” he said. “It took years of mismanagement and waste to create the mess we now face, and it will take tough times and tough choices to fix it. Some say it will take higher sales or income taxes to fix the mess we now inherit. I say we shouldn’t ask taxpayers to bail out a flawed system in desperate need of reform.”

Instead, Blagojevich said he will consolidate state agencies to reduce waste and increase accountability and eliminate unnecessary boards and commissions, which he termed “way stations for patronage at taxpayer expense.” In addition, he pledged to rebuild “from the ground up” the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which Democrats long have regarded as a suburban Republican patronage bonanza.

Despite the state’s dire fiscal straits, Blagojevich promised “new and bold ideas to help lower the cost of prescription drugs, to improve our schools and create jobs.” During the campaign, the Democrat offered detailed proposals in all three areas, with estimated price tags totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

Extolling the virtues of working men and women — symbolic of the union members who played such an important role in his election — Blagojevich pledged to support their right to “a good, living wage.” But he also vowed to be a pro-growth governor, assisting those who provide the jobs. “We will help small businesses grow, we will nurture an entrepreneurial spirit that fuels innovation and growth, we will work to bring opportunities to every part of Illinois,” he said.

All that might seem a tall order for a rookie governor facing a $5 billion budget hole, but Blagojevich appeared unfazed.

“We have a choice to make today,” he said. “We can choose to believe, or we can choose to despair. We cannot let cynicism become the death knell of progress. We cannot let pessimism become a roadblock to innovation. The one thing that we know for sure is that the future of Illinois has never been made and will never be made by cynics and naysayers. The future is always made by people who believe that here in America anything is possible.”

Hopelessly Pollyannaish? Maybe. Overly idealistic? Perhaps. The words of a naive reformer? Possibly. But on this clear, cold January day, even the rhetoric of renewal was a welcome change. 


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, February, 2003