Illinois Editorial Roundup:
February 23, 2020
The (Moline) Dispatch & The Rock Island Argus
Nobody should have been surprised when Rod Blagojevich called himself a victim and a "political prisoner" last week.
Blagojevich never was very good at telling the truth.
He is good at gaming the system, and he did it again last week.
As we all know, the former Illinois governor is no longer in prison. President Donald Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence last week, springing the disgraced governor four years early.
The president has said he was impressed with Blagojevich's wife, Patti, in her appearances on Fox News, where she pleaded for mercy for her husband - and just happened to add that she thought the president was being railroaded by impeachment.
On Wednesday, Blagojevich also ladled praise on the president, declaring himself a "Trumpocrat."
But what of the people of Illinois?
It was Blagojevich, their governor, who tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat and who shook down a children's hospital, holding up state funds in order to get a campaign contribution.
It was Blagojevich, the state's governor, who we all heard on those tapes, his bald-faced corruption on display. The words still repulse us.
In a state where corruption is endemic, Trump just cut it some slack.
Perhaps it would have been easier to take had Blagojevich been humbled by prison. He clearly wasn't.
His press conference on Wednesday was a swill of self-pity.
We think that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot put it pretty well when she said there are a lot of people who are released from prison every day, but "the difference between most of them and Rod Blagojevich is that they accept responsibility for the crimes that they committed. They are willing to do what's necessary to make amends for the harm that they caused."
Rod Blagojevich is having none of that.
That he actually called himself a "political prisoner" is a grave insult to people who are shackled and deprived of their freedom because of their courageously held beliefs. Not for trying to sell a public trust that, as Blagojevich infamously once said, was "(expletive) golden."
Aside from our revulsion at Blagojevich's early release, this commutation is a symptom of a greater problem: the way that Trump is doling out clemency.
It's not that he is granting clemency in greater numbers than previous presidents. We know that's not the case. President Obama did so nearly 2,000 times, according to Justice Department figures. But at least Obama relied on a process, including a program created in 2014 that sought to even the scales for those he thought had been dealt with too harshly by previous sentencing practices.
To qualify, prisoners had to have been convicted of nonviolent offenses and to have served at least 10 years, among other criteria.
It's fair to criticize this program, but at least it had some foundation. At least there was a procedure for being considered.
Trump, on the other hand, did not rely on the Justice Department's pardon office, but instead he turned to the advice of friends, acquaintances, political contacts and other celebrities.
Just look at the list of those who were on the clemency list last week. In addition to Blagojevich, there was Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers; junk bond king Michael Milken; and Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner.
As for the former Illinois governor, the president made clear his views were strongly influenced by the televised pleas of Patti Blagojevich. Last August, Trump said this: "His wife, I think, is fantastic. And I'm thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think he was - I think it's enough: seven years. I'm very impressed with his family. I'm very impressed with his wife. I mean, she has lived for this. She has - she's one hell of a woman. She has lived. She goes on and she makes her case. And it's really very sad."
This isn't how clemency should be doled out. It undermines confidence in the system.
Just consider the case of Paul Pogue, the owner of a Texas construction firm who was convicted of tax-related charges. His pardon last week came after family members donated $200,000 to help with the president's re-election campaign.
None of this should give regular Americans much comfort.
As for Blagojevich, the commutation of his sentence adds yet another punch line to the long-running joke about Illinois governors who have been imprisoned.
Unfortunately, nobody in Illinois is laughing.
February 23, 2020
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Budget plan rides on fall vote
A governor's budget address is supposed to be about numbers that are shaped by the administration's political priorities.
But Gov. J.B. Pritzker's speech Wednesday to members of the Illinois General Assembly was more about politics than it was about spending.
Specifically, Pritzker included $1.4 billion of spending in his proposed $42 billion budget that the state doesn't have and won't get unless voters approve a state income tax increase in the fall election.
If the vote to repeal Illinois Constitution's flat tax mandate doesn't fly, Pritzker warned he'll have less money to spend on a variety of important programs including K-12 and higher education.
That's a solid political play - threatening to sow financial chaos amid popular programs unless he gets his way. Republicans were quick to denounce the governor's 'scare' tactics.
Unfortunately for the GOP, they have little-to-no political relevance in Springfield. So much, if not all, of what Pritzker proposed last week will be approved by the legislature and become effective for the budget year that begins July 1. If any major changes are made in the governor's spending plan, they'll be made by the super-majority Democrats in the House and Senate.
One possible area of pushback relates to Pritzker's education proposal. Legislators, including new Senate President Don Harmon, predicted members of his caucus will want to increase K-12 spending by $350 million 'regardless of the outcome in November.'
Pritzker said he wants to spend $350 million but would reduce that number to $200 million if the proposed repeal of the flat tax mandate is defeated. Given the emotional nature of the issue and Pritzker's intent to use it as a club to induce voters to back him, this could be a point of substantial tension in the budget debate.
There are a few things that stand out like a sore thumb in the governor's spending plan. Combined, they reveal the sham nature of state spending plans.
The biggest involves Pritzker's pledge to put $8.6 billion into the state's five woefully underfunded state pensions. That's roughly 20 percent of the state budget, a number that reveals just how crippling the state's public pension woes are.
Pritzker bragged that he will allocate all of the 'statutorily' required pension money. But he somehow forgot to mention that what's statutorily required is considerably less than what's 'actuarially' required. That's why the state's pension debt approaching $140 billion keeps going up.
To demonstrate that he's tough on spending and looking to get the biggest bang for the buck, Pritzker recently embraced a plan to cut expenditures by $225 million. That's a lot of money, but, unfortunately, not a lot of money in the context of state spending.
Financial analysts at Wirepoints note that $225 million 'represents less than one percent of the 2021 budget,' which increases state spending by $2 billion from the current 2019-20 state budget.
In another effort to show his fiscal tough-mindedness, Pritzker announced he wants to put $10 million in the state's rainy day fund. Perhaps symbolically potent, all that it means is that the state will be even slower in paying its stack of $7.2 billion in unpaid bills.
Finally, he again spoke of the importance of presenting a budget that balances spending with revenue, something that, like last year, he failed to do.
While acknowledging Comptroller Susana Mendoza in the audience, Pritzker neglected to acknowledge her recent report on the state's financial status.
It revealed the depth of state existing debt - $214.5 billion - as well as the $3.4 billion deficit in the state's current budget.
The state's financial picture is so bleak that Pritzker felt required to acknowledge financial 'challenges.' At the same time, he lambasted those who do not share views as 'pessimists' unworthy of attention and portraying himself as an incurable 'optimist.'
He has a point about those who are relentlessly negative. They're not much fun to be around. But in Illinois' case, they would be better described as sober realists who point out that problems ignored, generally speaking, do not go away. They just get worse.
Just as he pledged in his campaign, Pritzker's proposed cure involves raising taxes and raising spending. But the people of Illinois have a say about that, and it just may be that they've had their fill of both.
February 22, 2020
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
Changing the culture in Springfield just got more difficult
These days, it's hard to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on something.
But, this past week, President Donald Trump did just that when he commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
In all reality, it was no surprise the president gave Blagojevich a get-out-of-jail-free card - the move was talked about for months. But it still sent shock waves through Springfield and the rest of the state.
Our own U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, has been in Trump's ear about it as far back as last summer. 'I disagreed with him as much as I could on the tarmac while sitting beside people in an airplane,' Bost said. 'His concern, he kept saying, that one, he's separated from his family. My statement on that was, that 'Mr. President, there's a lot of people out there separated from their family because they made poor choices and they violated the law.''
Frankly, we agree. Commuting the former governor's sentence sends a terrible message and is a bad idea. And just because Blagojevich was away from his family doesn't mean he gets to go home. That idea is ridiculous.
One of the hot-button issues in Springfield is ethics reform. And for good reason: There are plenty of current and former state lawmakers under investigation for various crimes in Illinois.
'Currently we have a massive federal investigation into corruption in the state of Illinois, and this action distracts and also dilutes what I think is the proper role of the Department of Justice to root out corruption,' said Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who called the decision 'disappointing.'
Again, and we cannot stress this enough, commuting Blagojevich's sentence sends the wrong message.
Blagojevich began serving a 14-year federal prison sentence in 2012 after he was convicted on 11 criminal counts related to his effort to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president. Blagojevich was also convicted on six counts related to campaign contribution shakedowns, including one count that said he essentially tried to trade $8 million in added state funding to pediatric specialists for a $25,000 campaign donation from a hospital CEO. In 2015, five of those counts were thrown out in appellate courts, although his 14-year sentence was re-imposed months later.
Those are some serious charges and convictions. Serious convictions call for serious prison time, and we believe that 14 years fits the crime. He deserved to serve all 14 years of his sentence.
Shortening the sentence just gives the next lawmaker who wants to sell a seat or take a bribe from a traffic-light company more leash to do so. In other words, there's no fear of punishment left. It sets a terrible precedent.
'Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated,' current Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said in a statement. 'President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time. I'm committed to continuing to take clear and decisive steps this spring to prevent politicians from using their offices for personal gain, and I will continue to approach this work with that firm conviction.'
The state of Illinois has a serious ethics issue. Heck, Blagojevich isn't the first governor who has served time in prison.
Our current lawmakers have a job to do now. They must use this as fuel to get ethics reform at the forefront in Springfield. New laws must be passed so that this doesn't continue to happen.
Changing the culture in Springfield is going to be difficult. It's even more difficult when our president commutes a convicted governor's sentence.