Lawmakers divided on trusting Blagojevich

Published: 6/6/2008 12:01 AM

Top lawmakers left a closed door meeting Thursday in Chicago without reaching a budget deal and split over whether to trust Gov. Rod Blagojevich given the conviction of his friend and former top adviser on corruption charges.

"Things have changed obviously," said Senate Republican leader Frank Watson, whose GOP members last week swallowed their contempt for the governor to back his major gambling expansion plan. "It is going to be difficult to move forward, to be honest about it."

But Watson's counterpart in the state House said the guilty verdict against Antoin "Tony" Rezko Wednesday didn't dampen his desire for billions of dollars in construction spending that would effectively hand Blagojevich years of rosy ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

"I don't know how (the verdict) plays out. I'm not going to worry about it," said House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego. "I will concede it is a big distraction, but we've got stuff to do."

Lawmakers are contemplating giving the governor a $34 billion public works package backed by new Chicago area casinos -- an industry seen as ripe for corruption. Supporters say it's needed to stimulate the economy and fix and expand the state's roads.

But the money would go to an administration portrayed by prosecutors as systemically corrupt during the two-month trial of Rezko. Federal officials continue to investigate the administration.

Blagojevich has not made any move to apologize for the corruption on his watch. Rezko and a bipartisan cadre of other insiders used their clout to strong arm kickbacks from businesses seeking to invest teacher pensions and to build suburban hospitals.

Blagojevich said Wednesday that he felt "deeply sad" for his "friend." He didn't comment Thursday following the budget meeting and has always refused to answer questions related to the federal investigation or criminal charges against his insiders.

But it was clear Blagojevich can still count on two things: Senate President Emil Jones Jr. is his staunchest ally and House Speaker Michael Madigan will make no moves to help the governor's agenda. Both are Chicago Democrats like the governor.

Jones simply brushed aside Rezko's conviction and the three direct corruption accusations made in the trial against Blagojevich. Jones said the conviction has "no impact" on his trust of the governor or his support of his budget and policy agendas.

Madigan didn't show up for Thursday's meeting. Instead he sent two lawmakers to sit in for him.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie declined to talk about Rezko, but didn't hold back in blasting the governor's push for a gambling expansion plan and budgetary schemes to increase revenue.

"What is it about being governor that is so hard for him to understand?" Currie said following the meeting, referring to Madigan's contention that Blagojevich should use his executive authority to balance the budget.

Blagojevich contends the $59 billion budget lawmakers approved last week has a $2 billion hole. He is holding out the threat to veto it and pull lawmakers back into summer sessions to find other revenue sources.

If he called lawmakers back to Springfield, Blagojevich may run the risk of 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. Impeachment proceedings are not expected to gain traction in Jones' Senate.

Another meeting is tentatively set for Wednesday.