Behind the Blagojevich Mess, a State in Disarray

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Jeff Roberson / AP

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich delivers his closing argument at his impeachment trial on Jan. 29

Governor Rod Blagojevich's 47-min. closing statement at his impeachment trial was the only real hiccup in the state senate hearings that had gone very smoothly in his absence. "It's painful to hold your tongue," Blagojevich said of the accusations leveled at him in December. But he insisted that he did not commit a criminal act, adding, "I didn't resign then, and I'm not resigning now." He went on, "You haven't been able to show wrongdoing in this trial," said Blagojevich, who called the proceedings an "improper impeachment not based on evidence" and hinted that he could call witnesses who might provide "political embarrassment to members of my party in Washington, D.C." At the end, he defiantly warned of "the dangerous precedent of removing me ... If it can happen to me, it can happen to any governor ... it can happen to any citizen." And then he left without taking questions.

Blagojevich had originally boycotted the trial, calling the proceedings, which began on Monday afternoon, a "kangaroo court." That allowed prosecutor David Ellis to present his case at a steady clip without any real hitches. Witnesses testified, evidence was presented and the occasional wiretap tape played. Blagojevich's soliloquy did not slow Ellis down. The trial moved swiftly to a conclusion and the unloved governor was sent packing a couple of hours after what turned out to be his valedictory. (See pictures of the remarkable world of Rod Blagojevich.)

If only the state as a whole functioned as smoothly as the trial. In a perfect — or at least normal — world, the Illinois legislature would convene next Wednesday to ready a budget that is due two weeks later and set to work drafting bills to help the state. On the to-do list: battle the effects of a plummeting economy, bolster schools and the small-business sector, shore up agriculture and deal with a host of environmental issues, from clean coal to protecting Lake Michigan. "Nothing's getting done," says state representative Patricia Bellock, a Republican who sat in on the monthlong process hearings that led to the trial. "Nothing."

"We're $2 billion at least in debt," says state senator Christine Radogno, head of the senate Republicans. "We have unpaid bills, we have less revenue coming in. Everything is literally at a complete standstill as we deal with this impeachment."

Through it all, the governor, as he did at his closing statement, painted himself as a defender of the poor and infirm, someone who is being unfairly targeted by legislators who want to reverse his progressive health-care and social-welfare policies. Indeed, despite the criminal charges against Blagojevich (including allegations that he tried to sell Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat), the trial is focusing on the governor's alleged "abuse of power": ignoring the wishes of the legislature by vastly expanding health care and other programs at a time when his critics say the state could least afford it. The governor is alleged to have gone around the legislature by simply ordering departments to carry out his directives — including bringing in prescription drugs from Canada and purchasing a flu vaccine outside of FDA supervision.

But the fact is that those same poor and infirm whom the governor claimed to be championing are those suffering the greatest because of the political paralysis brought on by his scandal. Funding at the state's 29 long-suffering safety-net hospitals for the poor, for instance, has been or is about to be cut off, according to Bellock. "Every week, I'm getting calls of doctors in tears not sure if they can treat a child," she says. "The bills aren't being paid, and the people are being turned away."

Nursing homes, domestic-violence shelters and alcohol- and drug-treatment centers are closing. "Once these things, these agencies, close, even if you turn the money back on, they don't spring back up," says Radogno. "They're gone, and we're damaging the human services infrastructure in the state." The cash flow at free clinics is drying up. And to make matters worse, the state's credit rating is sinking — and there hasn't been a balanced budget in years. As a result, the state has had to take out emergency loans to cover the deficit, and those payments — amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars — will be due in late winter and spring.

"We have a serious governance problem," says Bob Reed, a top aide to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, who is taking over now that Blagojevich has been ousted. "So much attention has been focused on the impeachment and now the trial that everything else has been placed on the back burner."

So what would Quinn — whose office has acknowledged that the state's accumulated debt could be $5 billion and climbing — do to get the state back on track? "The lieutenant governor has said the priorities are ethics reform, the economy and then the state budget crisis," Reed says. "Any one of those would be enough for anybody, but taken together, it's a tall order."

Some legislative leaders have suggested that Quinn, once he takes over as governor, get an extension on filing the budget. "The budget underlies everything," Radogno says. "It's the priorities of the state. If we can't have that, we can't deal with these things."