Blagojevich plans to cut $500 million from budget
Springfield, IL. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich is adding a new twist to the long, fruitless process of passing a new state budget.
Defying legislators, the Democratic governor says he will slash $500 million from the budget approved by the General Assembly and increase spending for several health care programs he favors.
Senate President Emil Jones is backing the governor by promising to block any efforts to override Blagojevich's changes to the budget. That puts him at odds with other legislative leaders, particularly House Speaker Michael Madigan, after he worked with them to send a budget to the governor.
But some of Jones' fellow Senate Democrats said they wanted more information before deciding whether to support his decision. And some lawmakers questioned the constitutionality of Blagojevich's proposal.
Blagojevich said Tuesday he would cut $200 million in "pork" projects and $300 million from unspecified places elsewhere in the budget. The governor's office could not provide a single example of programs he wants to cut, saying the information would come later in the week.
At the same time, he plans to expand state health programs to serve an additional 500,000 people with subsidies to help the poor buy insurance, higher income thresholds for parents joining state health programs and screenings for breast and cervical cancer for all uninsured people.
Blagojevich refused to answer any questions about the maneuver, which was announced in a brief appearance outside his Capitol office.
"In short, I am cutting pork and special-interest spending and in its place I'm using the legal authority that I have to expand health care to more than 500,000 people," he said before turning and walking away. "I believe that's the right thing to do."
The cuts he wants to make would have to go back to the Legislature to be accepted or overridden.
Jones (D-Chicago) joined Blagojevich and said he would not allow any Senate effort to override the cuts. "Case closed," Jones said.
Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville) questioned whether Blagojevich has the legal authority to make such a dramatic change in the $59 billion budget lawmakers approved last week.
"I think it's unprecedented," Watson said. "To have a governor just totally disregard the legislative process with this type of initiative, I think creates more problems in the process."
In March, Blagojevich proposed the largest tax increase in state history to fund an ambitious agenda for health care, education and debt reduction. That launched months of bickering with lawmakers, who did not share his fervor for health care or his interest in a major business tax.
Unable to agree, officials let the old budget expire July 31. State paychecks still are going out, thanks to a court order, but the impasse is blocking payments to schools, Medicaid providers and companies doing business with the state.
Blagojevich's threat could bring the legislative leaders back to the bargaining table and give him another shot at winning support for his health care initiatives.
There was no reaction Tuesday from Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who has been the leading opponent to the governor's budget plans.
The announcement by Blagojevich and Jones came the day after the governor signed legislation providing 9.6% pay raises for lawmakers, something Jones has sought for months.
Jones denied any connection between the raises and his decision to support the governor's changes to the budget. But Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff stopped short of denying a quid pro quo, adding it would be difficult for lawmakers to oppose health care expansion after accepting pay raises.
The budget Blagojevich wants to overhaul was negotiated by the four legislative leaders working together without him. They seemed united in their strategy.
Now Jones is willing to back Blagojevich in changing that budget and taking local projects away from his own members a decision he blamed on Madigan. He said the House speaker betrayed his trust by working against a new Chicago casino that would have provided money for state construction projects.
"To conspire to do that with the Republican leadership is something you don't do. Based on that, any agreements we had were off," Jones said.
Jones gave little warning to his Senate members that he would help the governor eliminate the local projects they wanted, from fire department computers to street improvements to dance-related community programs.
"God bless him, he was going to get health care no matter what," said Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson (D-Crete). "That's one way to do it."