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10/31/2009

Downstate Darkness

  I began this entry from a place called Darkness, Illinois.  I am writing with my thumbs (blackberry), moving at 70 miles an hour on Interstate 55, headed back to Chicago, after spending the last two days in Springfield covering the Illinois General Assembly's "veto session".  From my passenger seat, I can't see a thing on either side of the roadway except the silhouettes of cornfields and blurred lights in the distance.

  Earlier Friday, it was a surreal scene in the Capitol building: As the bronzed likenesses of Lincoln, Grant, Daley and Douglas stared blankly from their perches above, a tuxedoed all-male choir sang festively on the rotunda's ground floor.                                Field-tripping pubescents bussed here from an unheard-of junior high school frolicked ignorantly in the corridors, brushing shoulders with many of the 177 lawmakers on their way upstairs to be willing prey for the legions of lobbyists who regularly infect this gilded, historic palace.  

  Representative Tom Cross (R-Oswego), the House Minority Leader and I shared an observation regarding the state's worsening budget crisis: "It's almost like this big gorilla in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge is here," said Cross.

  The controlling democrats, including Governor Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton took the budget mess off the table long before the fall session began.  They failed in the Spring regular and Summer special sessions to reach any consensus on tax increases and/or cuts to resolve the reported $10 billion dollar deficit and decided that with the 2010 primary election only three months away, there's no way there would be a bi-partisan agreement now.  Furthermore, it would take a three-fifths vote during the veto session, so why not they say, wait until the regular session next year.

  Senate Minority leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) all but accused the majority party of cowardice: "The Democrats have enough votes without any Republican votes to pass a tax increase, if that's what they want to do. I think what they recognize is the mood of electorate: (Illinois taxpayers) don't want to send more money to a system that they perceive to be corrupt and inefficient," said Radogno.

  The campaigning Governor, who's in a primary battle with State Comptroller Dan Hynes, plunged into the rotunda circus to personally greet as many Capitol visitors as possible.  At one point last week, he went on a multi-city tour to promote a new lottery ticket a few hours after he announced plans to seek a $900 million dollar loan to keep the state afloat through the end of the year.

  But what really set this reporter back on his heels was the admission by Speaker Madigan that the democratic leadership has unofficially adopted a pay-as-you-go "budget" plan that could allow the deficit and unpaid bills to persist for months after the February 2, 2010 primary.  During an exclusive interview, Madigan told me there is no set budget plan and that the amount of money the state spends these days is limited based on monthly revenue shortfalls.  

  "We do have a budget.  A budget is authority to spend money. The governor asked for additional authority yesterday. We're going to give it to him, but we're not going to give him authority to spend money he doesn't have", said the Speaker.  

  Hmmm.  Sounds like "paycheck to paycheck".  And as the current evidence suggests, when there isn't enough cash to make ends meet, the state will just borrow some more to keep the lights on.

  That's how they survive the darkness downstate.

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