The Statehouse finger-pointing has escalated right on schedule.
As always with an overtime legislative session, nobody wants to take the blame for failing to reach a budget agreement during the regularly scheduled session, which ended May 31. If the government eventually shuts down because the legislative leaders and the governor can't agree on a state budget, and state workers, contractors, and public-aid recipients stop receiving their checks, the players want to make sure that someone else is fingered as the irresponsible party.
Because the legislature couldn't come to an agreement during the regular session, it now takes a three-fifths super-majority to pass a budget. That means the minority-party Republicans are at the bargaining table, and their votes will be required to get anything done.
Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson has said since he first joined the budget negotiations this month that he believes Governor Rod Blagojevich is not serious about doing a deal anytime soon. Last week, Watson reiterated his complaint and shared a brief anecdote about the negotiations.
According to Watson, after the leaders had finished discussing the Chicago Transit Authority's problems during a closed-door meeting, the governor opened the door for discussion on other subjects. Watson said he then asked about the budget. "What's the rush?" Blagojevich asked, according to Watson.
A spokesperson for the governor claimed that Watson took the governor's comment out of context. The behind-the-scenes push-back against Watson was fierce, yet not mentioned in any news stories the next day.
But numerous people who were in the meeting backed up Watson's claim, insisting Watson did not take the quote out of context.
Does it matter? Some. If there is to be any sort of government shutdown or serious budgetary crisis, it could have serious political consequences. Just about everybody points to how former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich got hammered in the national media and helped turn President Bill Clinton's political fortunes around by shutting down the federal government in the mid 1990s. That's why such tough countermeasures were taken against Watson. And we can expect plenty more of that as the overtime drags on.
For instance, last week Blagojevich asked that the General Assembly stay in session through the Father's Day weekend. The request was obviously unrealistic, but it shows how far Blagojevich is willing to go to claim that he did more than anyone else to "get the job done."
The truth is that Blagojevich is in no hurry to start negotiating a budget, let alone finish one. People deep inside the administration acknowledge that until there is a sense of urgency in the air, it won't do much good to start talking numbers. They also believe that House Speaker Michael Madigan will just shoot everything down until next month anyway, when a government shutdown is imminent, so there's no reason to proceed at full pace yet. "We knew there'd be an overtime the day after the election [last year] when Madigan didn't return Rod's call," said one insider last week.
There are those who believe that Blagojevich's endgame is to portray Madigan as a traitor to the Democratic Party and then use that to strip Madigan of his highly coveted state-party chairmanship. If that's really the case, it's wishful thinking. Madigan has that spot pretty much locked up, and it will be almost impossible for the governor, who is not all that popular with leaders in his own party, to pull it off.
Madigan certainly wasn't interested in resolving the budget dispute before the May 31 deadline. He wouldn't even return the governor's phone calls for months, let alone meet with him. It's assumed that Madigan is prepared to stay in session as long as necessary to accomplish whatever he has plotted. Some of the governor's folks think Madigan's ultimate goal is to destroy Blagojevich's political career so that Madigan's daughter, the state attorney general, can run for governor in 2010. The paranoia is obviously intense on all sides right now, as is often the case during high-stakes games.
Meanwhile, schools in desperate need of funding, property taxpayers in dire need of relief, and roads, bridges, and mass-transit systems in extreme need of repair are forced to wait while the games play themselves out.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and (http://www.thecapitolfaxblog.com).