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State of the State: Policy could take a back seat as Democrats unite for a common goal: re-election

Pat Guinane
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The State Fair has passed by, and with it went the partisan pep rallies that kicked off another campaign season.

Republicans spoke of rebuilding and revitalizing, while Democrats talked unity, a nod to their current stranglehold on state government. They control the Illinois House and Senate, both U.S. Senate seats and the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and comptroller.

That makes for a crowded dais. 

And, as Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in his State Fair speech, the Democrats' three-year reign has not been conflict-free. A budget standoff between House Speaker Michael Madigan and the governor last year led to the longest overtime session in state history.

Blagojevich also brashly questioned the autonomy of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the speaker's daughter.

And that was just one summer — and one official. Now, Lisa Madigan is investigating links between state contracts and Blagojevich campaign contributors. The governor also has had dustups with the comptroller, the secretary of state and the legislature as a whole. Remember the "spending like drunken sailors" comment?

Such acrimony was nowhere to be found on this year's State Fair political stump. If this unity congeals, the coming months could be a lot less interesting.

Despite their often public, sometimes petty squabbles, Illinois Democrats have used their power over the legislative and executive branches to achieve a sizable slice of their agenda. They increased the $5.15 minimum wage to $6.50 an hour and blocked a federal rollback of overtime rules. They enacted an equal pay law designed to end gender-based wage discrimination, gave unions more leverage on state construction projects and extended health insurance to 324,000 low-income children and their parents.

And, though it took two years and some lame-duck votes, the Democrats added sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination laws. In doing so, they ended a decades-old push to protect the public from landlords, employers and businesses that might not rent to, hire or serve someone they believe to be a homosexual.

On these issues, the Democrats have used their power to effect change. Unity has been there when they needed it. This spring, they agreed to push $2.3 billion in required state pension contributions past the November election. Using that money to plug holes in these next two fiscal years should help stave off some infighting.

Likewise, a sense of unity, however forced, in this campaign season could push some policy issues out of the limelight and into post-election plans. On these initiatives, the fruits of Democrats' labors have yet to mature.

Stem cell research, for instance, was a minor blip on the Illinois political radar three years ago. Now it's one of the most divisive issues on the national stage. And state Democrats, including Comptroller Dan Hynes and state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston, want Illinois to nurture the nascent science.

As with abortion, embryonic stem cell research forces debate over the beginning and end of life. Unlike abortion, stem cell research sometimes transcends partisan politics. Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a fairly moderate Republican from Oswego, is a staunch supporter of embryonic stem cell research. On the national level, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative Tennessee Republican, recently declared his support for such research. That put him on the same page as two-thirds of Americans, at least according to a June ABC News poll of 1,022 adults.

But in the Illinois General Assembly, Frist would be on the losing side of this issue. For the past two years, lawmakers have stymied efforts to support embryonic stem cell research, with the strongest resistance coming from Republicans and conservative Democrats in the state Senate.

So, in May, Blagojevich, Speaker Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones, all Chicago Democrats, surreptitiously tucked $10 million in stem cell research grants into the state budget. That's a drop in the bucket of what supporters say is needed, but they acknowledge it's a start. However, if poll numbers and conservatives like Frist continue to support stem cell research, perhaps the Democrat-controlled legislature eventually will come around.

It probably won't happen this year. 

Comptroller Hynes can run for re-election on the $10 million in start-up money without forcing the legislature to take a vote. Then Madigan and Jones won't have to force downstate Democrats to take a vote supporting stem cell research that might sink their own re-election efforts.

These are the same districts where the two parties grapple over guns. In fact, stem cell research, gay rights and guns are all issues that test geographic lines as much, or more, than partisan principles.

Allocating stem cell research dollars and signing the human rights bill will get Blagojevich high praise in Chicago, but he and the rest of his party would prefer those moves don't get mentioned in rural downstate Illinois. The same goes for gun-control efforts.

In Congress, and as a state legislator, Blagojevich pushed for numerous gun-control measures. But he put no muscle behind similar efforts during his first two years as governor. This spring, however, Blagojevich helped secure the votes for a measure requiring criminal background checks on buyers at gun shows. A few minor gun-control bills were approved, as well, but closing the gun-show loophole was a major accomplishment.

Don't expect an encore next spring. Gun-control measures tend to stall in a pre-election session. If that holds true, one major initiative in four years would earn Democrats a poor grade in Chicago, a city besieged by gun violence. 

But the relative stalemate on firearm legislation might add up to a passing grade statewide.

Meanwhile, after three years of Democratic rule, hundreds of Illinois school districts are still flunking their annual fiscal exams.

Blagojevich and fellow Democrats boosted school funding by nearly $1.1 billion over the past three years. But they largely have sidestepped the more fundamental question of funding equity.

The gulf between rich and poor districts grew by $4,000 per student during the 2003-04 school year, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of the state's most recent financial data.

The richest district — in suburban Lake County — shelled out $23,800 per student, nearly six times the $4,440 spent per pupil by the poorest district — in north central Tazewell County.

These districts rely on disparate property tax receipts. And Illinois relies on property taxes to fund nearly two-thirds of all elementary and secondary education spending.

So, while Blagojevich, Madigan and Jones have steered at least $325 million in new money into the classroom in each of the past three years, state government still picks up only 30 percent of the overall education tab.

Blagojevich wants nothing to do with the income tax hike it would take to topple the current school finance system. Senate President Jones, however, expressed support this spring for legislation that would have increased the personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent along with a corresponding corporate tax hike.

The measure made it out of committee but never received a floor vote.

It's hard to envision anyone in Democratic leadership pushing a 67 percent income tax hike in an election year. After all, Madigan and Jones just signed on as co-chairs of the governor's campaign committee. And the unity shtick was pretty thick during Democrats' day at the State Fair.

Sticking to the script, Speaker Madigan, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, delivered an introduction that lasted all of 15 seconds. In contrast, President Jones boastfully promised to secure "a veto-proof Senate," which would mean toppling at least four GOP candidates next fall. Even a normally demure Hynes got into the act, trumpeting the Democratic ticket by poking fun at Republicans, who are waiting to see whether former Gov. Jim Edgar will take another shot at the executive office. There was little mention of discord until Blagojevich stood to speak.

"There isn't a Democrat on this stage or probably a Democrat in this audience that at one point or another I didn't have some disagreements with," Blagojevich said. "What brings us together at the end of the day is [that] we are joined by a common purpose to use government as a vehicle to help people."

Some initiatives, including school funding reforms, won't get a ride in that vehicle anytime before the November general election. 

And let's face it, Democrats would need several tow trucks to move all the initiatives their constituents want. But these next 14 months will be about keeping control of state government so they can continue their work in them post-election future. That's the idea behind their decision to defer $2.3 billion in pension payments this spring, too. Mostly, they'll be pushing unity in this long campaign season. 


Pat Guinane can be reached at capitolbureau@aol.com

Illinois Issues, September 2005

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