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Budget battles could become new Illinois summer tradition
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 6/5/2008 3:53 PM

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As Wednesday's guilty verdict against insider Antoin "Tony" Rezko continued to call into question the governor's judgment and ethics, top lawmakers left a backroom meeting today without reaching a budget agreement.

"It is going to be difficult to move forward," said Senate Republican leader Frank Watson, whose caucus last week swallowed its contempt of the governor to back his major gambling expansion package.

The continued stalemate threatens to drag lawmakers into another marathon summer session that could cripple funding for schools and health care. It also holds off the addition of several new casinos in the Chicago area that would fund $34 billion in transit, road and school construction.

Still, Blagojevich today could clearly continue to count on his strongest ally - Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat. At the same time, the governor's top nemesis, House Speaker Michael Madigan, made no move toward a compromise.

Jones brushed aside questions about whether citizens could trust new casinos or more taxpayer dollars to a governor who calls Rezko a "friend."

"We have 12 million people in the state to take care of. It has no impact," Jones said before the meeting in the governor's Chicago office.

Rezko was found guilty Wednesday on 16 of 24 counts ranging from wire fraud to bribery for using his clout with Blagojevich to extort millions of dollars in bribes from state contractors during his first term in office.

Rezko, a Wilmette businessman who is now in jail awaiting sentencing, was a top fundraiser and adviser to Blagojevich.

Following the verdict, the governor made no apologies for the extensive corruption on his watch. He also took no responsibility for trusting Rezko with state appointments that he later used to rip off teacher pension funds and strong arm companies seeking to build hospitals.

However, it remains unclear how widely state Republicans will harp on the Rezko verdict and intensifying federal investigation of Blagojevich.

House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego said today the verdict will not have influence on the budget negotiations, or his trust of Blagojevich.

Madigan will continue to be the biggest roadblock to the governor's budget plans.

He refused to come to today's meeting, and instead sent two lawmakers from his caucus to speak for him.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, declined to address the Rezko verdict. But she continued Madigan's argument that there is no support for a major gambling expansion in the House, an assertion Blagojevich challenges.

On Memorial Day weekend, lawmakers sent Blagojevich a budget that set aside more money for education, but it was at least $2 billion short on revenue, according to the governor's math.

Madigan argues the governor simply needs to cut out spending with his veto pen to balance the budget.

Currie, who left about an hour into the nearly two-hour haggle session , said after she left that the governor did mention the possibility he will veto the budget and call the legislature back into session to pass a new one.

In doing so, however, Blagojevich would risk renewed calls for a vote to impeach him. Madigan's lawyers have looked into the move, which would take 60 votes in the House to get started.

Three high-level witnesses in the Rezko trial said Blagojevich either knew about corruption on his watch or directly told them he traded taxpayer-funded perks, like high-level posts or state contracts, for campaign cash. Blagojevich has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.

Federal investigators have been probing Blagojevich's administration for years. Another confidant, Chris Kelly, has been indicted for tax evasion. And investigators have reportedly looked into his wife Patti Blagojevich's real estate dealings with Rezko.