Greising: Blago Reminds Us: Illinois Needs to Be Freed From Corruption

On the same day Gov. Pritzker unveiled his latest spending plan and our ex-con former governor brought his circus back to town, it becomes clear: For the good of the state, fiscal renewal and ethics reform must go hand in hand.

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Speaks to Media Outside His Home (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Budget addresses by their nature combine broad policy pronouncements with green-eyeshade proposals about where the dollars will come from and where they will go.

In his budget speech today, Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not disappoint. He called for large increases in spending on child welfare, yet still promised a balanced budget. He stated the case for his “fair tax” proposal, the one that promises some $3.6 billion in projected annual revenue increases.

And his sense of confidence was well earned: The legislative successes of Pritzker’s first year in office have set the stage for a second successful session. 

But forgive us all if we were a little distracted. It was tough to stay focused on Pritzker’s broccoli-and-vitamins speech on the same day the Blago circus returned to town. There the ex-governor stood, outside his family home, striking the same defiant pose he held nearly eight years ago, the day he left for the federal pen.

An appearance by the felon former Gov. Rod Blagojevich is never welcome, under any circumstances. And yet, in this instance, the criminal cameo made a strange sort of sense. 

The Blagojevich show reminded us that corruption in Illinois politics always lurks just around the corner. It's a lesson worth noting as the legislature takes up Gov. Pritzker's budget plan: For the good of the state, fiscal renewal and ethics reform need to go hand in hand.

You'd never know it from Pritzker's speech. In his remarks, Pritzker emphatically pledged to fix the state’s finances. He deservedly claimed victory on some progress and promised to contribute $100 million to a rainy-day fund.  

But with his state in the midst of an unprecedented corruption investigation, Pritzker made no reference to the culture of corruption that has put four of his predecessors, and many other politicians, in jail. 

Fiscal reform doesn't happen in isolation. Pritzker will need to make significant progress on both ethics and finances before he can call the 2020 legislative session a success. 

The state’s fiscal troubles are in some ways the governor’s biggest challenge. They’ve produced a worst-in-the-nation credit rating, prompted people to leave Illinois and created a sense of despair when it comes to pensions and unpaid bills. Pritzker’s sincere and sophisticated plans are designed to make progress against such problems.

But Pritzker’s package of fiscal reforms won’t be passed in isolation. To become law, they must make their way through a legislative obstacle course and an entrenched corruption that, if anything, has gotten worse in the decade since Blago’s reprehensible conduct first came to light.

Blago was a one-governor crime wave. Among other misdeeds, he extorted a children’s hospital and sought to sell a U.S. Senate seat for personal gain. 

Yet if the ongoing avalanche of indictments and subpoenas in state government tell us anything, they seem to say that corruption today is more systematic, and at least as insidious, as when Blago was committing his crimes. 

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval traveled the state to promote Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure plan yet also admitted to accepting payoffs and peddling his influence on behalf of a red-light camera company. State Sen. Tom Cullerton chaired the Senate’s labor committee while allegedly taking six-figure payments for a no-show Teamsters union job.

No charges have emerged involving Commonwealth Edison’s lobbyist connections. But a public disclosure by the utility’s parent company, Exelon, warns that it and ComEd could face criminal or civil penalties arising from federal investigations.

The culture of corruption and efforts at fiscal reform are conjoined uncomfortably as Pritzker goes to work on his second budget. The same legislature that will consider his fiscal plan is under scrutiny as a result of the largest public corruption investigation in recent memory. 

Pritzker in his remarks talked about cynicism. "Cynicism, after all, demands only that you believe only in the worst and do nothing to stop it from happening," he said. 

The people of Illinois are understandably cynical about the corrosive effect of corruption. They need their governor to step in and lead as aggressively on this issue as he is doing on fiscal reform.

Pritzker’s financial proposals merit careful study. They’ll be debated and discussed. The governor will apply all his negotiation and problem-solving skills, as well he should. The fiscal health of the state is on the line.

The stakes in the fight for fiscal reform can be measured down to the nearest cent. Ethics reform isn’t quite so quantitative. But it’s just as important. 

Passage of the constitutional amendment needed for tax reform is hardly assured, and opponents of the tax will use corruption as an issue to deny Pritzker votes on tax reform. A fight for ethics reform now will help Pritzker in the fall, when he’ll need public support for his progressive tax.

The ethics reform commission is required to deliver a report by the end of March: If Pritzker is as serious about ethics reform as he is about fiscal fixes, he should lay out a concrete reform agenda before then. 

Pritzker today set forward an ambitious, specific agenda for fiscal reform. An ethics overhaul will require just as much energy, and as many details—and a political commitment from the governor to make it happen. 

If the need wasn’t obvious already, the appearance of an unrepentant Blagojevich is a stark reminder of the price Illinois pays when leaders let corruption run amok.