Democrats Prepare to Confront Budget Shortfall

by Jeff Fleischer

(Medill News Service, November 6, 2002)


The Illinois Democratic Party’s newfound hold on the state executive and legislative branches will help it set the political agenda, but also presents some potential problems.

“There [are] huge budget problems,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan. “But the good thing is you’ll have people at all levels of government now who will be able to cooperate with each other.

“It’s the national economy that has slowed down state revenues and probably created a greater demand for services,” Brown said. “We can’t really control the economy, though we can control spending.”

The state budget — which faces an estimated shortfall of more than $2 billion for the 2004 fiscal year — became a major issue in the gubernatorial contest between Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Jim Ryan.

Both candidates promised not to raise taxes, meaning the state would either need spending cuts, additional revenue, or a combination of both, to make up the deficit. If taxes or fees are raised, Democrats may not be able to avoid the blame.

But political consultant Don Rose said he wasn’t concerned. He said the Democratic tide has been rising for some time, and the party should be able to withstand the financial crisis — even if tax increases become inevitable.

“Through the ’80s and into the ’90s, we’ve had pretty consistent kinds of tax increases” in Illinois, Rose said. “That didn’t damage the Republicans. It took a major scandal.”

Rose said the 1972 election was “the last time a tax issue made a serious impact” in a gubernatorial race. In that contest, incumbent Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie lost to Dan Walker, who was the last Democrat to hold the office until Blagojevich’s victory. Ogilvie had overseen the introduction of the state income tax.

During his campaign, Blagojevich also promised to lower prescription drug prices, raise the state’s minimum wage and pass legislation requiring pay equity for women — all of which could put further strains on the budget.

Cindy Davidsmeyer, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones (D-Chicago), said Jones will focus on these issues once he replaces James “Pate” Philip (R-Wood Dale) as Senate president in January.

After its losses on Tuesday, the Republican Party’s “main focus right now is laying the groundwork for 2004,” Republican spokeswoman Terri Hickey said.

“We’ve got to do better in Chicago and suburban Cook [County],” Hickey said. “Our main focus is to reach out more to African Americans, to Hispanics, to women.”

Rose said social issues played a key role in the Democrats’ success. He suggested that Republicans will need to work more on these issues, which resonate with traditionally Democratic voting blocs.

“The Cook County suburbs are going Democratic,” Rose said. “Some of the collar counties are loosening up, and parts of downstate.

“Because of the demographics of the state, the Democrats will have a lock — barring a scandal — on this state for the next 10 years and probably the next quarter century.”

Tags: , , , , , ,