It's Political Groundhog Day

Illinois reliving financial crisis, scandal

It seems fitting that Pat Quinn starts his first full week as governor on Groundhog's Day. Like the movie when Billy Murray keeps reliving the same day, Quinn finds himself in a remarkably similar place as his predecessor six years ago.

When Rod Blagojevich entered the Illinois governor's office, the state budget falling apart and public confidence had been shaken by a spectacular scandal involving George Ryan.
Illinois still faces a huge deficit, but all the tricks and half-measures that could hold things together have been used up. And voters already cynical about their politicians now have their fears confirmed by a governor caught on tape allegedly using his official powers to raise campaign cash.
"He leaves exactly in the same quagmire, and I think it is a terrible, wasted opportunity," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. "It is a terrible shame and disgrace, not only for him but for all of us."
Now,  Quinn faces an even tougher situation.
Blagojevich was elected as a reformer, an energetic young Democrat who people hoped would fix the mess created by a cranky old Republican who wound up going to prison. He enjoyed significant good will and had months of transition time to prepare.
Quinn, the lieutenant governor who suddenly became governor when Blagojevich was impeached and ousted, is probably little known to most Illinoisans. He has been thrust into the role suddenly after years of being a political outsider, sincere but ineffective.
What Quinn has going for him is a consensus in the Capitol that the state's problems are too big to ignore.
"I think he is prepared and I know that the attitude of the General Assembly is we need to work together to get this thing going," said Republican state Sen. Dan Rutherford.
Still, top Republicans show little evidence they'll be gentle with the new governor. Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said Quinn's first act as governor should have been apologizing for his six years as lieutenant governor under Blagojevich.
When Blagojevich took office in January 2003, Illinois government faced a combined deficit of about $5 billion for the budget year that was ending and the one that lay ahead. The current budget has a hole of about $3.5 billion, only part of which has been filled with spending cuts, while bills are piling up and revenue is falling.
Blagojevich, with some help from lawmakers, contributed to the budget mess by expanding programs. But it's not entirely his fault.
"Quite frankly, a lot of that is outside of his control. We have a global meltdown," said state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
Blagojevich had used several tools to hold the budget together, at least on paper, without having to take drastic action. He came up with a plan to borrow money at low rates, invest it and come out ahead on the interest it earned. He raised obscure fees and raided special funds.
That leaves Quinn with few options -- primarily raising taxes, cutting spending or letting unpaid bills pile up even higher.
Quinn also faces the challenge of trying to convince Illinoisans that not all politicians are crooks.
State government looked bad enough when Blagojevich came to office. His predecessor, Republican George Ryan, left under a cloud of scandal and later went to federal prison.
Blagojevich promised to clean things up, but instead set records in raising money from people who ended up getting state jobs and contracts. He also helped block ethics legislation.
Finally, he was arrested by the FBI and accused of using his office to demand campaign donations, including allegations he tried to sell an appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
Blagojevich denied any wrongdoing, but lawmakers found the accusation so credible they impeached him and voted unanimously to make him the first Illinois governor ever removed from office.
"He's done irreparable damage to our government," said Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks. "It's going to take us a long time to get back to the low level we were at before he came into office."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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