JONATHAN COHN JUNE 28, 2011
It’s never a happy thing to see someone convicted of serious crimes. With rare exceptions, I don’t believe people should serve really long prison sentences. So I don’t want Rod Blagojevich to serve decades in prison. Still, these were just and necessary verdicts. The Chicago Tribune’s Annie Sweeney reports that our corrupt former governor is expected to serve ten years. This seems about right.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand just how toxic Blagojevich’s presence was. He took office on the heels of a disgraced, scandal-plagued Republican administration. At the precise moment when millions of people hoped for more honest, competent, and progressive government, Blagojevich cashed in. He did so with grotesque disregard for even the sullied implicit standards that often constrain patronage democracy. It’s one thing to squeeze another corrupt politician, a casino entrepreneur, or a highway contractor. It’s entirely another to extort Children’s Memorial Hospital. Or criminally mess with the Senate replacement of the first African-American president of the United States. Neither Mayor Daley was a saint. Yet each conducted himself with a visible sense of legacy. The Daleys obviously cared about the city they governed. They cared what people would think about them decades from now, and it shows.
Nominally progressive, Blagojevich accomplished some good things, especially when constituencies he cared about were really able to really see. What they couldn’t see … well that was another matter. Thus he insured kids while operating a badly-managed Medicaid program that damaged the safety-net and failed to provide proper access to care. Thus he mouthed progressive pieties while failing to pay bills and worsening an array of fiscal time-bombs that are now the principal threats to progressive government here.
A few weeks ago, the Tribune ran an article whose title, “Parents of disabled children giving up on Illinois,” speaks for itself. Reporters Bonnie Miller Rubin and Monique Garcia described families putting their house up for sale and moving to Wisconsin, Michigan, or Minnesota when a child was diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, or other costly and challenging disorders. I don’t know how widespread this is. I don’t blame these families for one moment. Illinois ranks near the bottom in many national measures of disability services. We don’t spend enough money, and we don’t deploy the funds that we do spend very well.
The recession and the accompanying budget crisis are making these problems worse, with further punishing cuts arriving this year. Illinois’s large unfunded pension and retiree benefit liabilities—a governance failure worsened by Blagojevich—cast a shadow over future budgets, too.
Most experts realize that we need a significant and permanent increase in state income, coupled with a more professional budget and legislative process to place Illinois’s budget on a sustainable, even keel. Because our low and flat state income tax raises too little money, the state chronically performs desperate budget shenanigans, pays huge amounts of money in excess interest payments and penalties, and imposes painful service cuts. Governor Quinn has made a brave start in addressing these problems with a temporary income tax increase, and with a worthy plan to consolidate state borrowing that failed to pass.
We must do more, but guess what: It’s a heavy political lift. It’s a heavy lift because people are understandably cynical after seeing the visible misconduct and sometimes-criminal behavior of so many politicians and office-holders on both sides of the aisle. This poisons the political sales pitch for so much of what needs to be done. The fact that Blagojevich was a nominally progressive Democrat only makes things worse.
There is a craft to governing and to public management. One needs to take these tasks seriously and to do them well. Blagojevich, instead, trashed the place, leaving Illinois voters, tax payers, and his own successors to clean up the mess.