Blagojevich defends his handling of state budget

By Christopher Willis

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich insists he knows what he’s doing as the state budget deadlock drags on and on, even if others have their doubts.

In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, he dismissed griping from lawmakers that he is deepening the impasse by, for instance, dragging the contentious issue of gun control into the mix. Some say Blagojevich’s approach seems random.

“It’s not at all. It’s totally what I envisioned was going to happen in January, February and March,” Blagojevich said, adding that the confrontations could grow even more public.

The Democratic governor would offer no details on how his actions help achieve his goal of passing a major new health care program despite the reservations of many lawmakers.

“We just keep working at it and keep hammering at it and keep insisting we have to get this done before we finish this budget,” he said.

Blagojevich also denied that his health care initiative is complicated by the federal investigations of his administration. He refused to discuss whether his campaign organization has received subpoenas, calling the issue “rumors and innuendoes.”

Since his re-election last year, Blagojevich has given only a handful of in-depth interviews. He often flees public events without speaking to reporters, and throughout the spring legislative session he would say little in defense of his budget proposals.

During the 40-minute interview in his Statehouse office, Blagojevich denied that was an attempt to duck corruption questions. Instead, he said, he was trying to avoid public confrontations with legislative leaders, particularly House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

“We thought that might be a good first effort to achieve something,” he said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t work, so now it’s a little more public. And it will be a lot more public as the days and weeks unfold.”

The budget was supposed to be approved by May 31, but Democratic leaders are deeply divided. The proposal to guarantee health insurance for everyone in the state is a key part of the impasse.

Throughout the interview, Blagojevich delivered passionate calls for lawmakers to help the state’s uninsured, calling it, “literally a case of life and death, right and wrong.”

Some lawmakers are skeptical about launching such a large new program. Others support the goal but can’t agree on how to pay for it. Blagojevich has discussed business payroll taxes and gambling expansion to provide $5 billion for health care and schools.

Officials estimate the state budget contains a hole of nearly $900 million even before any new programs are added. Blagojevich said lawmakers can’t cut spending enough to eliminate that shortfall, so they’ll have to raise revenues. And if they do that, they might as well raise them enough to pay for useful new services.

“You gotta do that tough vote or two anyway. Make it work for the people,” he said.

State government is still operating only because officials passed a budget extension that expires at the end of July. Many lawmakers say they won’t agree to another extension if the deadlock drags on into August.

Blagojevich would not take a position on whether he would sign another extension. “I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said.

The governor renewed his call for Democrats to shut Republicans out of the budget process. That would require delaying the start of some controversial budget provisions until next year so they could pass with just a simple majority, requiring no Republican votes.

Yet Blagojevich’s proposals don’t have solid support even among Democrats.

Blagojevich was unable to pass his health plan in the Senate earlier this year. His Senate allies have not even tried to pass his budget there, and the House rejected privatizing the state lottery.

Blagojevich hasn’t won over many skeptics with some of his recent actions. He has been called “a madman” and “cowardly” for threatening legal action when the House met earlier than he wanted, ordering a special session on the contentious issue of gun control and demanding that lawmakers meet daily.

His push for action on gun control fizzled Wednesday when the sponsor of the legislation, which would ban high-capacity ammunition clips, refused to call the bill for a vote. Rep. Harry Osterman, D-Chicago, said it didn’t have enough support to pass.

Blagojevich defended his orders for daily legislative session, saying they get rank-and-file lawmakers more involved in budget negotiations and increase pressure for a resolution. And he distanced himself from his office’s threat of legal action over the time of House sessions.

“That’s a lawyers’ thing. They’ll figure that out,” said Blagojevich, a lawyer.

Blagojevich refused to discuss the federal investigations of his administration’s hiring process and the Chicago Tribune’s report in May that his campaign fund has been subpoenaed.

“This is old news that has nothing to do with the people of Illinois in terms of helping improve their lives,” he said.