Blagojevich threatens $1.5 billion in budget cuts

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich laid out an ultimatum for his foes in the Illinois House Tuesday, threatening a staggering $1.5 billion in painful budget cuts unless they step in soon with money to stave off the slashing.

The cuts are aimed at repairing a budget the governor says has a $2 billion hole and cover a mix of new and existing spending.

Amtrak train subsidies, $150 million in school construction grants and a significant number of state employees are among the possible victims. There’s also hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for health care providers, social service agencies and colleges and universities.

Blagojevich stopped short of ordering lawmakers back to work but stressed they could easily avoid the fiscal doomsday if the House returns by July 9 to approve three ideas: Creating a new $34 billion statewide construction program, borrowing to pay off pension debt and taking money out of state funds set aside for special purposes.

“This way is the best way. It’s up to the House,” Blagojevich said at a news conference at his Chicago office.

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said there’s nothing new about Blagojevich pointing the finger of blame at the Madigan-led House. “He does that every day,” Brown said.

The measures Blagojevich wants passed are flawed, Brown said. “Are the defects corrected?” he asked.

House Republicans, whose support is critical to patch the hole, signaled they’re not on board the governor’s plan yet.

The announcement could signal more fighting between Blagojevich and lawmakers that has plagued the state Capitol since last year.

Democrats in the House and Senate approved a clearly unbalanced budget and left town May 31, eager to avoid a repeat of last year’s long overtime session and happy to let Blagojevich take the heat for messy cuts.

But now the governor is trying to put the onus back on the House and Madigan, his nemesis.

The Senate, led by Blagojevich ally Emil Jones, approved the revenue-generating ideas and the capital program before leaving town. The pension bond and fund sweeps ideas never came up for a vote in the House, and Madigan used a parliamentary maneuver to defeat the gambling expansion that funds the construction package.