Illlinois Statehouse News | Analysis

As much as things change in Springfield, they also stay the same

2014-01-27T00:00:00Z As much as things change in Springfield, they also stay the sameKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
January 27, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Sunday marked the fifth anniversary of the start of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate.

By the time senators got to the end of three days of testimony, there was little suspense left: The members solemnly voted 59-0 to boot the two-term Democrat out of office.

It didn't take long for workers to remove Blagojevich's photograph from the entrance to the Capitol and replace it with one of another Democrat from Chicago, Pat Quinn.

But, five years later, that's not the only thing to change under the Statehouse dome.

In fact, it's been a busy time in the Capitol after years of Blagojevich-induced legislative gridlock.

Here's a rundown of five things that have changed and five things that have remained essentially the same since the historic impeachment trial began.

-- WHAT HAS CHANGED

CONSTRUCTION: During his six years in office, Blagojevich and the Legislature were unable to agree on a way to pay for a job-creating road, bridge and school construction program. Within a year of his departure, Quinn and the legislative leaders had devised a plan to legalize video gambling and raise taxes and fees on booze and motorists. The money has paid for not only better roads, but new copper doors on the Capitol.

TAXES: Blagojevich was true to his word when he said he would never support raising taxes. But that meant he had to use sleight-of-hand budgeting techniques — like tapping into pension funds — to finance his pet programs. His actions, as well as those by chief executives who came before him, left the state in a precarious fiscal position. Within two years of his ouster, a temporary increase in the income tax was approved.

PENSIONS: After balking for years, lawmakers last month finally approved an overhaul of the state employee and teacher pension systems. Although it likely won't save any money while it winds its way through the court system, passage of the changes showed the General Assembly and Gov. Quinn were finally starting to figure out how to make tough decisions.

NEW LAWS: While Blagojevich was in office, his signature achievements included the expansion of a health insurance program for kids and an increase in the minimum wage. Since Quinn came on board, the state has legalized medical marijuana and gay marriage, approved new worker compensation rules and offered up some guidelines for a controversial oil and gas drilling process that will: a) create thousands of jobs; b) ruin the environment; c) or, do some of both.

PRISONS: After years of listening to Blagojevich threaten to close prisons, Quinn actually did it. The governor moved inmates out of the Tamms super-max facility and the all-female Dwight Correctional Center, as well as closed juvenile prisons and a handful of halfway houses. The closures confounded many observers because they came at a time when the prison system is grossly overcrowded.

-- WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED

MINIMUM WAGE: Since Blagojevich oversaw a phase-in of an increase in the minimum wage, the rate has remained at $8.25 an hour. Look for Quinn to call for a new increase during his State of the State speech Wednesday.

SCHOOL FUNDING: State support for education continues to be talked about as a top priority among lawmakers and governors. Too bad its actually gotten worse. When the dust settles on the next budget, don't be surprised if funding levels remain at Blagojevichian levels.

THOMSON PRISON: The big news a couple of years back was that the state sold its never-used prison in Thomson to the federal government. Has the white elephant become a bustling job creator north of the Quad-Cities? Nope. After being caught up in state-induced red tape for years, it is now entangled in the federal version.

THE MANSION: People complained that Blagojevich never lived at the governor's mansion in Springfield. People complain that Quinn doesn't live at the mansion in Springfield. If the next governor is from Chicago, the complaints will continue. Politically, it is better for a governor from Chicago NOT to live in Springfield.

THE LEGISLATURE: House Speaker Michael Madigan remains the most powerful man in Springfield and Republicans remain the minority party in the Capitol.

The opinions are solely the writer's. Kurt Erickson is the Lee Enterprises Springfield bureau chief. He can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or (217) 782-4043.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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