Illinois Democrats Spar Over Spending Plan Squabbles over state spending plans usually break down along party lines — as in Pennsylvania, where a budget fight between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers has shut down parts of the government. But in Illinois, Democrats are fighting Democrats.
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Illinois Democrats Spar Over Spending Plan

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Illinois Democrats Spar Over Spending Plan

Illinois Democrats Spar Over Spending Plan

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Fights over state spending plans usually breakdown along party lines. But in Illinois, right now, it's Democrats fighting Democrats.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, it's a name-calling, finger-pointing battle over the state budget.

CHERYL CORLEY: If Illinois state government was a boxing match, Democrats would be wearing the championship belt. Governor Rod Blagojevich is a Democrat, the speaker of the Illinois House and the Senate president are, too, and Democrats hold large majorities in each chamber. It took more than 30 years for the party to beat out Republicans and achieve that status. Even so, the fight these days is among Democrats. Despite their power, they failed to craft a new state budget by a May 31st deadline. Now, some six weeks later, they've only agreed to keep the state running with a temporary spending plan through the end of this month.

Professor PAUL GREEN (Political Science, Roosevelt University): Well, I think this is the most serious political mess the state has been in in a very, very long time.

CORLEY: Paul Green is a political science professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University. The mess, as Green puts it, is like a boxing match, with Governor Blagojevich and allies, including Senate President Emil Jones in one corner of the ring; and the other corner - Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, his Democratic allies and some Republicans. The governor wants more money for education and backs an ambitious plan to provide health care coverage for all Illinois residents. He'd like to pay for it in part by licensing more casinos. House Speaker Madigan has offered a much smaller spending plan.

The budget fight has become an increasingly personal war of words. Here is Governor Blagojevich after meeting with some lawmakers in his office.

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): The Democratic speaker of the House, Mr. Madigan, has formed a coalition with the conservative Republican leader of the Senate. And the way to be able to finally get budgets that achieve the objectives of health care and education for families is to get Mr. Madigan to be a Democrat again and stop being a George-Bush Republican.

CORLEY: Fighting words for sure, since the long-serving House Speaker Madigan is also the chairman of the state Democratic Party. His spokesman is Steve Brown.

Mr. STEVE BROWN (Chief spokesman, Rep. Michael Madigan): The Governor's had this sort of never-ending string of insults about the speaker and the legislature. It's really done nothing to solve the budget impasse. I think it's demonstrated his immaturity, his lack of experience or knowledge about managing state government.

CORLEY: Brown says the Blagojevich health program would cost billions more than the state can afford. And while the Governor has said he is willing to adjust, so far, the stalemate continues. Again, Paul Green.

Prof. GREEN: I have to admit, in all the years I have watched it - and I have watched it for decades - I have not seen this kind of bitterness, forget - within the same party, even between opposite party people.

CORLEY: The tension among Democrats may have reached a new level, but it has been a constant. Democratic Representative Pat Verschoore calls the governor's style disengaged, and says he got off to a bad start when he decided not to live in Springfield, the state capital, and continue to work mainly in Chicago.

State Representative PAT VERSCHOORE (Democrat, Illinois): Absolutely, it's an issue. I mean, I get that when I go back to my district, they're saying, why would a governor not want to live in that beautiful mansion?

CORLEY: And cost the taxpayer of thousands of dollars flying between the two cities. Despite the acrimony, State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, the House majority leader, says some of attention is to be expected.

State Representative BARBARA FLYNN CURRIE (Democrat, Illinois): We're a very diverse group. And that, I think, means that you can't expect all Democrats to agree on all programs at all priorities at all points of the day.

CORLEY: Currie says there is a middle ground.

State Rep. CURRIE: Well, I think it's just time for us to go ahead and find it.

CORLEY: If the battle over the Illinois budget drags into August, the state could find itself in the same predicament as Pennsylvania, shutting down government services. Not exactly what Illinois Democrats had hoped for when they embraced an electoral mandate and took control of state government last November.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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