Blagojevich legacy clouds Illinois' reputation
SPRINGFIELD -- The aftershocks of Rod Blagojevich's corruption, mismanagement and dishonesty will reverberate in Illinois and cloud its reputation long after the disgraced governor reports to prison.
Reforms implemented after the national scandal of a governor trying to auction off a U.S. Senate seat should prevent some kinds of corruption, experts said, but might also shift power to legislative leaders and independent political groups. The state government is still swimming in rough economic waters left in the wake of debt and budget gimmickry dating back to Blagojevich. Ill will and mistrust, which crested at the state Capitol during his tenure, still flare up.
Blagojevich's actions drove home to state politicians that money and a willingness to distort the truth can win elections, even for a candidate under federal investigation, insiders said. And even as he cemented Illinois' image as the nation's No. 1 producer of crooked politicians, he added goofiness to the punch line.
"It's the shadow that just won't go away," said Rep. Joseph Lyons, D-Chicago.
On the other side of the equation, thousands of toddlers will keep enrolling in preschool programs made available by Blagojevich's policies. And tens of thousands more children have access to health care, giving Illinois one of the nation's best records for providing care to the young, said the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children.
Blagojevich's attorneys tried to chronicle his good deeds as part of his bid for mercy. Federal Judge James Zagel, who ordered Blagojevich to serve 14 years in prison, noted at the sentencing hearing that the former governor did some good things for the state -- but not enough to outweigh the bad.
"When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired," Zagel said, addressing Blagojevich. "You did that damage."
Blagojevich actually began his six years in the governor's office on a wave of optimism. Democrats were thrilled to have one of their own in the job after a quarter-century on the outside, but many in both parties saw him as a refreshing change from his scandal-tainted, deal-making predecessor, George Ryan.
The Chicago Democrat, though, was soon butting heads with legislators and publicly insulting them. Lawmakers came to distrust Blagojevich so much that, for the first time, they began requiring a governor to put his agreements in writing.
Democratic officials put aside their differences and rallied behind Blagojevich when he ran for a second term, despite federal prosecutors acknowledging he was under investigation. Blagojevich raised millions to spend smearing his opponent as a dotty Ryan crony and secured another victory.
His second term produced more conflict and gridlock in the state capital of Springfield, as well as growing budget deficits. But his administration was cut short by Blagojevich's indictment, in part for trying to sell or trade an appointment to the Senate to replace President Barack Obama. Blagojevich was quickly impeached and removed from office.
The scandal led Illinois politicians to again try to clean up the system.
Government officials can no longer accept money from people who get state contracts and high-level jobs. Political campaigns face caps on the size of campaign donations. Government inspectors have been added and given more power.
But the contribution limits don't apply to legislative leaders or to groups that, at least officially, aren't connected to candidates. For some observers, that raises the possibility that political money will just keep flowing through new channels, creating new problems.
David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said legislators deserve a lot of credit "for shutting the barn doors so the next horse can't escape." Voters, burned by two governors in a row, are also more sensitive to candidates' ethics -- at least for now.
"We're always one election away from the next Blagojevich, so the question is, are voters going to keep turning them away or is one of them going to slip in?" Morrison said.
Blagojevich's lengthy prison sentence could make some politicians think twice about their conduct in the future. Or they may, like Blagojevich, assume they're too smart to get caught.
The state's budget problems are worse today because of decisions dating back to the Blagojevich administration.
State revenues were shaky after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but were still growing. Blagojevich, with legislative approval, often spent every available cent and more. He borrowed and used questionable bookkeeping maneuvers to spend more and more while refusing to raise taxes.
When the national economy nearly melted down in 2008 and state tax revenue fell, Blagojevich did little to slow spending. Illinois still had bills to pay but essentially its weekly paycheck had plummeted, it had no savings and its credit cards were maxed out.
That left few options for Blagojevich's successor, Gov. Pat Quinn. He led the push for an income tax increase and budget cuts, but a key part of the state's strategy has been to simply let bills go unpaid for months at a time.
"The gimmickry of what went on during Blagojevich's years has not stopped," said Frank Watson, who was the Senate's top Republican when Blagojevich took office.
The Blagojevich years weakened the always-shaky spirit of bipartisanship among state lawmakers. Once, it was expected that the governor and legislative leaders of both parties would meet to negotiate major decisions. But those meetings ceased under Blagojevich as he and fellow Democrats excluded Republican leaders or he built temporary alliances that left out a particular Democrat.
Legislative leaders also saw that gridlock did not trigger voter outrage and cost lawmakers their jobs. Sessions could drag on without producing results, and the governor's threats and appeals to the public could be ignored.
Blagojevich was also unfocused, jumping from one policy proposal to another, most of which went nowhere.
He didn't get Illinois residents access to less expensive prescription drugs from other countries, as he'd vowed to do. He didn't overhaul the "Soviet-style bureaucracy" at the State Board of Education. He didn't keep children from playing violent video games. He didn't add keno to the state's gambling options.
Two successes, however, were expanding services for children under the All Kids health program and the Preschool for All program.
Neither program achieved truly universal coverage, according to Voices for Illinois Children, and both have been trimmed back as the state tries to cut costs. But they did ensure that more poor children got to see doctors and attend preschool. The number of poor 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool jumped from 60,000 in fiscal 2004 to 95,000 five years later. The percentage of Illinois children without access to health care was halved, to just 5 percent, between June 2006 and June 2010.
Kathleen Ryg, director of Voices for Illinois Children, called it "heartbreaking" that Blagojevich's achievements in those areas have been so tarnished by his other misconduct.
Others who dealt with Blagojevich struggle to name any accomplishment.
"He'll never be remembered for anything except that he's the first governor impeached in Illinois history," said Watson.