- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.

Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich has made a point of regularly going to work at his office in Chicago. He has signed legislation and issued pardons. He has sent out press releases about predatory lending and fighting poverty.

Nevertheless, his arrest on federal corruption charges clearly has complicated his work as the state’s chief executive and already has cost the state about $20 million. The state is facing a potential $2.5 billion budget deficit, and the governor doesn’t have the same horsepower - or clout - to address the problem that he had just a month ago.

No one in the state capital trusts Mr. Blagojevich enough to give him authority to trim the budget on his own, as he requested in November. Any other idea he advances probably would be rejected out of hand. Yet no other official can take the lead.

“Everything just comes to a halt. You have complete paralysis,” said House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego.

Mr. Blagojevich, a second-term Democrat, was arrested Dec. 9 on charges of scheming to swap President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat for profit, shaking down a hospital executive for campaign donations and other wrongdoing.

The governor has insisted he has done nothing wrong and that he will not resign. His aides say he is going about business as usual.

His chief of staff, who was arrested along with Mr. Blagojevich, has resigned and been replaced by a deputy governor. Another deputy, one with a background in budget matters, has resigned and may not be replaced. Plus, a committee is expected to recommend in early January whether the state’s House should vote to impeach Mr. Blagojevich.

“I think it’s difficult for him to manage government in the way a governor normally would,” said state Rep. Gary Hannig, a Democrat from Litchfield. “This is a time when you need strong leadership from the governor’s office.”

The state must find a way to eliminate its deficit. If nothing is done, the most likely outcome is that it won’t pay its debts to hospitals, pharmacies and nursing homes that care for the poor, forcing more of the facilities out of business.

The problem cropped up two weeks ago when an effort to borrow money to pay overdue bills - one social services vendor was owed $8 million, and garbage collection at a state prison stopped for 10 days last month - was sidelined because the state attorney general’s office refused to give immediate consent.

The delay - blamed on the governor’s legal woes - cost Illinois $20 million in extra interest, according to Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Because the short-term borrowing plan was put off for several days after Mr. Blagojevich’s arrest, the state ended up paying higher interest rates.

Standard & Poor’s recently put out a negative “credit watch” on the state’s AA bond rating, noting that the budget deficit and the governor’s legal situation could hamper efforts to find a remedy.

The governor’s budget director declined an interview request. Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said the governor is expected to get an update soon on the budget deficit - including potential solutions - from his staff.

“I think the governor has shown that he continues to govern the state and is performing his duties,” Mr. Guerrero said.

Critics acknowledge that government will grind on despite Mr. Blagojevich’s problems. State police will patrol. The Department of Revenue will collect taxes. Snowplow crews will clear highways.

However, when an emergency hits, Illinois will lack a real leader to solve the problem, and smaller problems may pile up in the meantime.

Will Mr. Blagojevich be able to find people willing to serve under him on the boards and commissions that help set policy? Would those appointments even be approved? Can he hold on to his current staff and agency directors? If he delivers a State of the State address, will anyone attend, let alone seriously consider his proposals?

“Everything he touches is tainted,” said Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association in Chicago. “We know his thought process: legal, personal, political. I don’t see public interest anywhere in that.”

Mr. Blagojevich won’t be able to call on federal officials for help, even though Mr. Obama and some top officials in his incoming administration are from Illinois and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, is the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Also, though Mr. Obama plans a huge public-works program next year, Illinois may not be in a position to get its share. State officials have failed year after year to approve construction money that would qualify for federal matching funds. That appears unlikely to change.

Some of the governor’s critics say his new problems won’t mean a dramatic change for Illinois because he wasn’t trusted or deeply involved in government even before his arrest.

“We’ve been leaderless for a long time,” said Sen. Christine Radogno, Lemont Republican. “Consequently, our state is floundering.”

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