SPRINGFIELD - Just days after shuttering several state parks and historic sites and asking for understanding from Illinoisans amid bleak economic times, Gov. Rod Blagojevich took his taxpayer-provided aircraft to Philadelphia to tell fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama how bad things are in the state they both live in.
Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero defended the trip and use of the state plane, noting that if the governor hadn't gone, he'd surely have faced media criticism for his absence.
"This was a historic meeting that was attended by virtually every governor in the United States, and our being there could help brings billions of dollars to Illinois," Guerrero said Wednesday in an e-mail responding to Daily Herald questions.
Obama met Tuesday with members of the National Governors Association to discuss how the federal government can bail out states struggling to balance budgets.
"And, had we not gone out, I am sure you would question us on why we failed to go out and meet with the other governors and the president-elect," Guerrero added.
Blagojevich, and other governors, flew into Philadelphia to tell tales of economic woe on the same day executives from the Big Three automakers drove to Washington, D.C., to plead for economic assistance. The executives faced harsh criticism for taking personal jets to a previous Capitol Hill hearing.
Obama represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate and before that served in the Illinois Senate. He and Blagojevich both reside in Chicago with about 15 miles separating their households.
But Guerrero said the governor's two-day Philadelphia trip was an important opportunity to discuss urgent budget issues with Obama and the other governors.
"And lastly, it's naive to think that we can just call a meeting with Obama because he 'lives just a few miles away.' The president-elect has made it very clear that no state - not even his home state - would get any special treatment or favors. The economic situation facing Illinois is real and we need help. The governor will take that message to the President-elect any way he can," Guerrero said.
Indeed, the real-world effects are taking hold of a dismal economy and unbalanced state spending. Over the weekend, the Blagojevich administration closed seven state parks and a dozen historic sites to save money.
"In this poor budget situation, I am asking for support from state legislators and constitutional officers to help manage the budget. I also ask Illinoisans to understand that closing a few sites and making reductions are decisions that I don't want to make, but decisions that have to be made so that we can balance Illinois' $2 billion budget deficit," Blagojevich said in a statement explaining the cuts.
His use of the state airplane has often been criticized. He routinely uses it to commute from Chicago to the Capitol on the days he works in Springfield, leaving in the morning and flying back to Chicago at night.
Lawmakers have frequently chafed at Blagojevich sticking them in Springfield for special sessions only to find him flying home each evening. Once he left a session early to fly back for a Blackhawks hockey game.
The plane is part of a small Illinois Department of Transportation fleet. The agency bills the governor's office and other users.
Last year, state auditors questioned the rates, saying the 41 cents per mile per passenger was nowhere close to covering costs. The agency raised the rate to 68 cents, still far below the $1.85 per mile auditors said was the break-even point.
Guerrero said commercial flights are considered, but in this case, flying commercial would have been more expensive. He said flight reliability, staff travel and in-flight communication access all factor in.