This was supposed to be a quiet year at the Illinois statehouse.
The Democrats have some vulnerable incumbents, particularly in the House. The fewer problems, the less controversy, the better for incumbents with tough campaigns ahead. At least, that's what just about everybody figured.
But then last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan surprised the state's political world and whacked Governor Rod Blagojevich but good.
Madigan said he wouldn't support the governor's proposed fee hikes without conditions, said he thought the governor has relied on borrowing "too much and we ought to stop," expressed serious reservations about the governor's plan to consolidate the guv's school-construction program under one roof, and opposed closing a prison in southern Illinois.
The speaker informed a Rockford newspaper columnist that he told Governor Blagojevich "we went too far" with fee increases last year. Madigan said he had informed the governor's budget director that "before we do any further fee increases, we have to have relief for trucking companies." The General Assembly approved large tax and fee hikes on trucking companies last year, prompting howls of protest from the industry. The governor has refused to reconsider the increases, which totaled a bit less than $100 million, even though both legislative chambers have passed bills that would roll back the fees. The governor has proposed boosting a wide array of fees this year as well, but not on truckers.
Madigan said he planned to hold a hearing in two weeks about the governor's borrowing plans. "We're going to come up with a proposal to address what they're doing," he said, adding, "They're borrowing too much and we ought to stop." The governor has proposed borrowing several billion dollars, but hasn't provided any revenue sources to pay for it.
The speaker also said he's not sure the governor's plan to consolidate the school-construction program under state control is a good idea. "I think the program has done very well since Governor Jim Edgar inaugurated it," he said. "So the program is working, and Blagojevich wants to put it under state control. I'm concerned about that." The plan was touted by Governor Blagojevich as a way to squeeze $160 million in efficiencies from the construction program.
A couple of weeks ago, Madigan put the kibosh on the governor's plan to re-structure the way teachers are certified. He has also expressed concerns about budget cuts to the State Board of Education. And Madigan quietly but firmly signaled he was ready to kill or grossly alter the governor's proposal to change the way some social-service providers are paid, a plan that was supposed to save the state millions of dollars and allow it to capture millions more in new federal matching funds.
Put all of this together and the speaker has just blown a several-hundred-million-dollar hole in the governor's budget and undercut much of what the governor has tried to do in the past 16 months.
Toss in the recent Associated Press analysis that showed the governor's fee hikes from last year are running about $100 million short of expectations, and the guv's budget is now in starvation mode. Speaker Madigan has not challenged a governor in this way since 1994, when Jim Edgar was in charge. Since then, he has tried his best to publicly stay on the governor's good side, to the point of announcing at several press conferences during the terms of Edgar (post-1994) and George Ryan, "I'm with the governor."
Ten years ago, Madigan told me he had learned his lesson after his extended, high-profile fights with Jim Edgar. The speaker started off determined to show Edgar who was boss. Four brutal years later, Edgar was re-elected in a landslide and Madigan lost control of the House. Madigan said afterward he finally realized that when legislators fight with governors, the public always sides with the governors.
But nobody with any power at the statehouse has said "no" to this governor. Without some sort of braking action, Blagojevich's continued push for fee hikes, his heavy borrowing, and his attempted removal of local control from schools (not to mention his very liberal social positions and his pro-Chicago bent) might do more harm to Madigan's targeted incumbents than keeping everything quiet and going along with the program.
So much for a quiet session.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).