Ill. Governor's Trial Delays Action on Other Woes

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) --

There will be no discussion of how to fill the enormous budget deficit that is delaying payments to hospitals and pharmacies. No early start on next year's budget. No work on a huge public works program that would create jobs during the economic downturn.

"Until we get this taken care of, it is very, very difficult to think that we're going to concentrate on revenue, spending, programs and all of that," said Republican state Sen. Dan Rutherford.

Then, there are the problems created by the governor's legal difficulties.

After Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges that included scheming to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat, the state's bond rating fell, costing it an extra $21 million in interest on a loan to pay overdue bills.

But the trial, scheduled to get under way Jan. 26 and finish by Feb. 4, could bring quick progress to Springfield.

Blagojevich's removal would instantly raise the possibility of new agreements at the Statehouse, where he and legislators have bickered more than governed for the last couple years.

"I believe if Lt. Gov. (Patrick) Quinn would take over, he knows that he's going to have to sit down and work together with the other leaders," said state Rep. Robert Rita, a Democrat.

Quinn said if that happens, he'll move "rather swiftly" to strike a deal with legislative leaders to fix the state's problems.

But in the meantime, the drama surrounding Blagojevich stymies progress and the financial toll mounts.

The state is $3.6 billion behind paying its bills to hospitals, pharmacies and other service providers, forcing some businesses to close their doors or turn away Medicaid clients. The state's unemployment rate climbed to 7.3 percent in November, meaning more people may need government aid to buy food and get health care.

And the overall budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 has a hole of $2.5 billion or more.

Already, Blagojevich has closed seven state parks and 12 historic sites, and more cuts may be needed to close the deficit and get ready for next year's equally tight budget.

Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias said the state will earn only $130 million in interest on its investments in this fiscal year, compared to $376 million last year. That could shrink to $86 million, or perhaps even lower, in the upcoming year.

What's more, state government problems quickly translate into local problems.

The Chicago area's Regional Transportation Authority plans to borrow $200 million to keep operating, partly because it's waiting for overdue money from the state.

"This is really a severe economic crisis we have to dig into right away," said Senate President John Cullerton, who hasn't ruled out a tax increase. "We've got incredible challenges."

The Chicago Democrat said one of his top priorities is passing a statewide construction program to repair crumbling roads, bridges and schools. Such a plan has been discussed for years but state officials could never agree on funding or overcome suspicions that Blagojevich would use the money to reward friends and punish enemies if he was in charge of doling it out.

The issue is more important than ever now that the federal government is discussing a large economic stimulus package. Governors around the country are compiling lists of projects and lobbying their state's congressional delegation. But members of Congress aren't exactly eager to talk to Blagojevich.

As if the financial troubles were not enough, lawmakers say they'll have to wait until after the trial to begin winning back voters who have lost trust in government amid the scandals of Blagojevich and his predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan.

"Unfortunately, there's a cloud cast over all of us because what few have done. We have to regain the confidence," said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat.


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