If you’re wondering why Gov. Rod Blagojevich would flip-flop on his vow to reform the state’s massively underfunded pension system, you don’t have to look much farther than the most recent poll.
A recent survey of 1,000 registered Illinois voters showed Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka leading Democratic Blagojevich by almost 10 percentage points.
The automated poll, paid for by the Topinka campaign, showed Topinka ahead of Blagojevich 45.8 percent to 36.4 percent, with 18 percent undecided. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The poll, which tracked with surveys by the Chicago Tribune and by SurveyUSA, found that the governor’s job-approval rating was 34 percent, whereas his disapproval rating was 53 percent. Both the Tribune and SurveyUSA had the governor’s approval in the midthirties, whereas SurveyUSA’s disapproval was close to Topinka’s result. The Tribune had Blagojevich’s disapproval at 44 percent. SurveyUSA polled registered voters; the Tribune questioned likely voters.
The Topinka survey results were similar to those of the Tribune’s poll by region. The Tribune found that just 28 percent of downstaters want to see Blagojevich reelected and that 30 percent approved of his job performance. Topinka’s poll found that 29.5 percent support the governor’s reelection and that 28 percent approve of his performance.
A governor under siege is a dream come true for people such as House Speaker Michael Madigan. Blagojevich has been a thorn in Madigan’s side for years, and they have traded barbs ever since Blagojevich won the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Blagojevich has never taken Madigan’s usually sage advice, and this has irritated the speaker to no end.
But Madigan has been unusually quiet this year. No longer does he sharply criticize the governor’s budget proposals or threaten to kill the governor’s legislative initiatives. He’s even gone out of his way to say nice things about his former adversary.
It wasn’t difficult for Madigan — or anyone else, for that matter — to see that the governor was heading for trouble when Blagojevich picked a nasty public fight with his own father-in-law in December. Constant missteps and an escalating series of scandals haven’t helped. Blagojevich’s reelection prospects were suddenly in question, and Madigan knew that the governor would need some friends soon.
Madigan decided last year that the state ought to restructure its pension-payment schedule. The current payments are eating the budget alive. Skipping a couple of years’ worth of payments while adjusting the payoff schedule seemed the best way out.
The governor flatly dismissed Madigan’s idea last year. Blagojevich wanted to do things his own way, and, as a result, we ended up with a two-month overtime session that accomplished very little.
This year, the governor drafted a fatally flawed budget proposal. Much of it was based on drastic benefit reforms for state workers and teachers.
Public-employee unions have been pressuring legislators and the governor ever since. When he was still riding high in the polls, the governor could ignore complaints from the Democratic Party’s natural constituencies. But when his numbers suddenly tanked, he needed a quick way out of his self-created mess. If unions abandon him next spring, it could prove disastrous with Democratic primary voters.
It was too late in the session to come up with an entirely new budget, so Blagojevich turned to an unlikely ally, Madigan, who dusted off his pension-holiday plan. Blagojevich could avoid cutting benefits for union workers, adjourn the session on time, and then take a few weeks to rethink his approach to governing without the distraction of an overtime-weary Legislature and news media. The governor jumped at the opportunity.
There’s always a reason behind Madigan’s master-chess-player behavior. It’s why he almost always gets his way. This year has been no exception.