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Illinois Issues
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Ends and Means: Here's the truth behind the political advertising in the governor's campaign

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As Campaign 2006 heads into the homestretch, a refresher course in Civics 101 might help Illinois voters separate fact from fiction amid the campaign blather flooding the airwaves and clogging their mailboxes.

Let's begin by turning a critical eye to one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's favorite themes: Just about everything that's currently wrong in Illinois is the fault of 26 years of Republican governors, in particular the last four under George Ryan.

Moreover, the Blagojevich camp would have voters believe, his Republican opponent, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, did nothing to prevent the GOP-wrought calamities.

Topinka "must have been asleep at the switch for the four years of the Ryan Administration that left the state with a $5 billion deficit and a pension debt that had doubled," proclaims the governor's campaign Web site. "She was all but silent as Gov. Ryan unveiled each of his four budgets — culminating in the worst fiscal crisis Illinois has ever seen."

It's fiction, not fact, to suggest that Ryan and legislative Republicans were solely responsible for the perceived fiscal shortcomings of those years. Moreover, the Constitution does not assign the state treasurer any role in the legislative process.

Class, please come to order. Required reading will be the 1970 Illinois Constitution, Article IV — The Legislature. Please take note of Section 8, paragraph (c), which begins, "No bill shall become a law without the concurrence of a majority of the members elected to each house."

The meaning is clear: Any measure must have the affirmative votes of a majority of both the Senate and of the House before it can pass the General Assembly. That's 30 in the Senate and 60 in the House. The logical corollary follows that the majority in either chamber can stop any bill from passing.

Now consult any reference work that lists the session-by-session partisan breakdown of the legislature. Remember, Ryan was inaugurated in 1999, serving until Blagojevich took over in 2003.

During that four-year period, Republicans had the majority in the Illinois Senate; thus, nothing could pass without at least some GOP help. The House, however, was a different story. There, Democrats outnumbered Republicans throughout Ryan's tenure. As a result, the Democrats could prevent the passage of any proposal they chose to block.

The obvious conclusion: Neither Ryan's budget, nor any other legislation during his term, passed without the blessing of the House Democrats and their shrewd leader, Chicago Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan.

In fact, Ryan's first three budgets were hammered out by the governor and the four legislative leaders, including Madigan, and signed without change. In his final year, Ryan cut some $565 million from the spending plan lawmakers sent him, much of it money added by the Democratic-controlled House. Led by the Senate Republicans, lawmakers held the line on all but $55 million of the vetoes.

It's fiction, not fact, to suggest that Ryan and legislative Republicans were solely responsible for the perceived fiscal shortcomings of those years. Moreover, the Constitution does not assign the state treasurer any role in the legislative process. Her job is to deposit the state's revenues, earn interest on them and honor the checks the state comptroller writes to pay the bills.

In fact, Madigan and his troops in the House deserve an equal share of either the blame or the credit, depending on one's perspective, for the Ryan budgets. And Topinka was no more relevant to the legislative process than the guy who vacuums the House chambers.

Similarly, the Blagojevich campaign likes to contrast its fiscal performance — it claims four years of balanced budgets — to Ryan's presumed profligacy. Here, too, the actual numbers as reported by state Comptroller Dan Hynes undercut the campaign rhetoric.

Take the balanced budget claim. For decades, the state's fiscal health has been measured on a cash basis, comparing money in the bank to bills outstanding at the end of each fiscal year. By that time-honored yardstick, Blagojevich has yet to balance the budget, although he's made good progress in that direction. In the state's most recent budget year, which ended last June 30, the state had $590 million in its general funds account to cover $881 million that was paid from July 1 through August 31, yielding a budgetary deficit of $291 million. That's a dramatic improvement over the $1.1 billion deficit posted in fiscal 2003, Ryan's last budget — but still a deficit.

The picture is less comforting when viewed through the lens of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, the private sector standard for financial reporting. In FY 2005, the most recent year available, the state's general funds posted a $3.1 billion GAAP deficit, the comptroller reported.

While the governor chastises his predecessor for bloated budgets, in fact Blagojevich's four budgets authorized spending $8.2 billion more in general funds than the state spending plans for Ryan's four years. General funds appropriations for this fiscal year stand at $25.8 billion, 10 percent higher than the largest Ryan budget. And Democrats crafted the current blueprint with no Republican help.

Indeed, reviewing the entire 26 years of Republican stewardship that Blagojevich so likes to bash, one discovers that for 24 of those years, Democrats were the majority in one or both — usually both — legislative chambers. The only exception followed the 1994 election, which gave the GOP majorities of 33-26 in the Senate and 64-54 in the House from 1995-1997.

Shared governance, not one-party control, had been the norm in Illinois, until voters in 2002 and 2004 elected Democratic majorities in both chambers to serve with Blagojevich. 

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

Illinois Issues, October 2006

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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