Can Illinois' Governor Save the Children?

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It's an election year in Illinois, which means time for big — really big — promises. And Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich is trying to deliver on pledges that are reaching, judging by his own words, near-biblical proportions. Beginning Saturday, the state will activate its ambitious — some say unrealistic — All Kids plan to provide health insurance to virtually every child in the state.

Some 43,000 children — mainly those from poor families as well as middle-class households earning $40,000 or more — have already been enrolled in the plan, according to state officials. Within five years, the rolls should top 250,000 while the yearly price tag is expected to swell from roughly $45 million in its first year to $100 million by its fifth year.

"It comes from a lesson rooted in the Bible," Blagojevich wrote in an editorial after the Illinois General Assembly passed a proposal for the program in November. "If it's OK for those of us in politics and government — those of us who make the rules — to have health care for our kids, then it's only right that we give every parent a way to make sure that their kids have health insurance too."

But Blagojevich's crusade to save the children isn't only about health care. To help jump start their education, he has also promised "universal" pre-school for all Illinois youngsters; so far, according to the Governor's office, the state has already added 25,000 children to its pre-k programs and is fast making headway to include every child ages three and four.

Although other states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Tennessee are pushing similar programs to expand health care for the neediest, both Blagojevich's plans were touted by his administration as "firsts" for the nation. "We're leading the country in these areas," said Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk. "It's simple... If [children] are healthier and they can read, they can enjoy a better life and save society later."

Given Blagojevich's record of family and political scandals — feuding with his alderman father-in-law and a federal investigation into pension and hiring irregularities — it's no wonder that many critics and pundits wonder if the Governor's lofty goals are just posturing. The state's record on education and children's well-being, after all, isn't much to brag about. The state has some of the top public schools in the country, but ranks near last overall in education funding. And while the group Kids Count reported this week that Illinois shot up from near bottom of its annual well-being ranking of states' children, the state still languishes in the middle of the pack at 24th. Too many kids still live in poverty or are from families with no working parents, even as infant mortality and other negative indicators have fallen, according to the report put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore.

Judy Baar Topinka, the current state treasurer and Blagojevich's Republican opponent in November's election, is not surprisingly among those who isn't buying the promises. "They present these program and plans, but the Governor's office jealously guards many details, leaving many in the legislature and others unclear about the real stakes here," said Topinka spokesman John McGovern. The critics' chief complaint is not that Blagojevich wants to insure all children or provide them with early education, but rather how it would be paid for at a time when the state is struggling financially.

But Tusk and Blagojevich's supporters brush off the naysayers. "We're doing this and we're making it work," Tusk said. "To the pundits who only look at health care for children and preschool as a political issue, they have a pretty jaundiced view on life."

Until the Repubicans have a plan of their own to tout, says GOP political consultant Cathy Santos, it won't do much good to bash the Governor's. "It's like a puppy bill. Of course people are going to support the notion. He's doing his job. Blagojevich is being a Democrat and Democrats like these big social programs," Santos says. "But where are the Republicans with their counter? Do we just shoot it down and wait for another Democratic plan to shoot down, or do we come up with an alternative?"