Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has racked up some impressive poll numbers partly because the voters have so far bought into his constant refrain that he is "changing Springfield's culture."
There is no doubt that he has reformed some things. And I'm not completely ready to say with certainty yet that some of his other actions are not reforms but are really cynical power grabs masking as reforms.
But even if he is a real reformer, the governor could be leading this state down a very dangerous path.
For example, last year, Governor George Ryan proposed combining the state's pension systems, worth billions of dollars, into the State Investment Fund. Ryan said the idea would save administrative costs, but everyone figured Ryan really wanted to consolidate the funds in order to put one of his closest friends in charge of a truly gigantic pile of money. The consolidation would also have allowed Ryan to tightly control which companies were handed lucrative money-managing and investment contracts.
Ryan's idea went nowhere. It was just too blatant and way too fraught with potential corruption.
About a week ago, Governor Blagojevich quietly tried to slip that very same pension-consolidation idea into a huge budget bill. When questioned, the governor's office claimed the proposal would save money and allow the governor to reform the investing process.
The governor might be right, but if his idea was so good, he should have subjected it to the public-hearing process, where it could have been openly debated by legislators, pension-fund experts, and people who depend on their monthly pension checks. The "bad old way" the governor allegedly despises included muscling through enormously important bills with little or no debate.
And if the governor is trying to change the culture, why would he steal an idea from George Ryan of all people, the guy who Blagojevich so firmly believes personifies whatever is wrong with state government?
A few months ago, the governor proposed reducing the number of, and membership on, dozens of state boards and commissions. But his bill would have allowed him to appoint some members and most executive directors without any legislative oversight.
The governor argued that his consolidation would save money and streamline government, and for all we know he could have been right. But if George Ryan had tried to seize that much unchecked power during the campaign last year, Blagojevich and everybody else would have screamed bloody murder.
Illinois' Constitution requires the state to have an auditor general. The auditor general is elected by both chambers of the legislature for a 10-year term, which gives him the independence to aggressively search out government waste. Bill Holland is in his second term, and he's a tireless investigator who has uncovered untold millions of dollars in waste, fraud, and inefficiency.
But a couple of months ago Governor Blagojevich issued an executive order that trampled on Auditor General Holland's turf. The governor wanted, essentially, to create his own auditor general's office controlled by one of his cronies. Holland was not amused, and as of this writing the General Assembly is re-working the governor's idea.
I can only imagine how the public would have reacted if George Ryan had tried to seize direct control of almost all the government's auditors. The uproar would have been deafening.
Too often, reformers think the best way to reform a government (or a business) is to grab all the power for themselves so they can keep a close eye on everything. For argument's sake, though, let's just assume that Blagojevich would use all of his new powers for good, even though we all know that too much power concentrated in too few hands almost always leads to scandal.
But what about the next governor? What if the voters once again accidentally elect another corrupt insider masquerading as an ethical grandfather who then inherits complete and unchecked control over a huge swath of state government?
What if that one person could hire whomever he wanted to run a single, massive pension fund worth tens of billions of dollars? What if he could also appoint his buddies to dozens of lucrative executive-director positions and influential chairmanships without any oversight? And what if that same guy also had a vice grip on the state's internal-auditing functions?
Institutional checks and balances might not be perfect, but they are always preferable to putting complete trust in one politician to remain forever honest. The governor needs to re-think his agenda.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).