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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A cookie-jar fixation

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Let's see, is there any group of voters that Gov. Rod Blagojevich hasn't tried to bribe in pursuit of his impossible dream of re-election?

For seniors, free rides on trains and buses. For parents, health care and day care for their toddlers. For young adults, permission to ride their parents' health-care insurance plans until they're 26 (30 if they are in the military). For wounded veterans, an exemption from local property taxes. Even if none of them need the benefits. If I've forgotten anything, I'm sorry; there are just too many to remember.

Giveaways, freebies, subsidies, tax breaks; nothing's too costly for the sake of Blagojevich's daft idea that he has a political life after 2010. And to make matters worse, for all the attention given to the blood feud between the governor and the legislature, it is the lawmakers that have in too many instances caved into the governor's demagoguery.

Here is a recent example: The legislature swallowed whole a Blagojevich proposal that would force insurance companies in Illinois to cover some 300,000 twentysomethings on their parents' medical policies. They don't even have to live in Illinois and never mind that if they're in the military, they already get full and free health care courtesy of federal taxpayers. No telling how much this largesse will cost everyone who pays a health-insurance premium. All that matters is that for one brief moment, Blagojevich will stand in the spotlight as the compassionate governor. And those who oppose him will appear to be "mean-spirited" tightwads.

Thankfully, even the legislature couldn't stomach (it failed by a mere three votes) Blagojevich's proposal to exempt veterans who are at least 50 percent disabled from paying property taxes. It would cost local units of government $35 million to $40 million in lost revenues; who would make up that shortfall wasn't explained.

Now, these weren't ideas that had been knocking around for months or years, subject to detailed public scrutiny and debate. Both ideas were contained in amendatory vetoes that Blagojevich attached to other legislation. The break on insurance premiums passed the House and Senate in an astonishing two weeks, without public hearings, with hardly any public airing. It was as if most lawmakers were too chicken to say no, even though they keep bellyaching about how the governor is usurping their powers.

Blagojevich's premise is that the voters are stupid or greedy enough to think that he's doing them a great favor, when the state's finances are among the nation's most dismal. These same voters would flock to someone's garage to buy deeply discounted stolen goods believing that, yes, they "fell off the truck."

Blagojevich has raised cynicism and political opportunism to a whole new level in a state that already seems to pride itself on the politics of self-advancement. Incredibly, Blagojevich still crows about how he eliminated budget deficits when, in fact, he hasn't. Even more incredibly, despite his awful and self-destructive performance, lobbyists and special interests continue to pony up huge campaign contributions because Blagojevich still has a couple of years left in office and big state contracts still need to be awarded.

These latest follies were made possible by a vaguely worded Illinois constitutional provision that gives the governor extraordinary veto powers. One provision allows the governor to reduce or veto any appropriation approved by the legislature, the so-called line-item veto. It's a good idea, but the other provision in the constitution gives Blagojevich all the wiggle room he needs: It says: "The governor may return a bill together with specific recommendations for change to the house in which it originated." It doesn't say what kind of changes the governor can make, and thus is open to wide interpretation, endless lawsuits and abuse.

The provision obviously needs improvement so that it can't be exploited by the likes of Blagojevich. (Of course, the legislature can override the governor's change, but as we see, that doesn't always work on the side of common sense and sanity.) And that gets us back to the debate over whether voters in the November election should approve the calling of a constitutional convention, to correct this and a number of other flaws that have led to the current state of mal- and mis-governance. Again, it's up to those who so vigorously oppose a constitutional convention to come up with an alternative way to correct those faults. I'm betting they won't.

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