During the 20th century, the office of governor has propelled several executives onto the national scene and into the White House. It’s a proven career path for the politically ambitious, and it appears to be a path our governor is striding.
It’s often been said that legislative and policy initiatives in our 50 states serve as test beds for national policy. The concept hasn’t been lost on Gov. Blagojevich. He’s hardly missed an opportunity to propose Illinois solutions to national issues. Blagojevich’s policy interests and political instincts are more attuned to pursuing issues of national significance than simply managing the routine affairs of the Prairie State.
A major plank of his first campaign platform was to one-up a deadlocked Congress and raise the minimum wage in Illinois. In 2003, Illinois became the only state between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains with a minimum wage requirement exceeding the national level of $5.15. Today, Illinois’ minimum wage is $6.50. If re-elected, the governor intends to raise it to $7.50. Without defending the federal wage level, there are good economic reasons for Illinois not to be out of line with national and regional standards where business cost drivers are concerned. It’s of particular concern for a state where job growth severely lags the national experience.
In 2004, the governor supported importing drugs from foreign sources to provide lower cost drugs to Americans. He defied the federal government by leading a campaign for importation and recruited other government entities to join a drug-purchasing consortium. Ultimately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stifled the scheme by pointing out it was illegal and refusing to give Illinois a waiver. Congress subsequently adopted a prescription drug plan for Medicare recipients and deflated the issue.
Next, the governor reacted to the short-lived national scare of a flu vaccine shortage. At the governor’s direction, Illinois purchased $2.6 million worth of vaccine from a foreign manufacturer. Illinois taxpayers paid the bill, but the vaccine never arrived in the U.S. and eventually was donated for use overseas. The feared shortage never materialized.
Blagojevich quickly grasped the significance of national reports that revealed concerns for childhood obesity and diabetes. His solution was to take on the food industry by attempting to ban their products from Illinois public schools. His legislative initiative failed. He’s since pressed the appointed State Board of Education to do the deed by administrative fiat.
Recently, the governor chose to champion higher standards for mercury emissions than required by new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules established for coal burning electric generating plants just last year. The Illinois standards, if adopted, will exceed national policy and again demonstrate our governor’s eagerness to trump Washington. Unfortunately, the practical effect of this politically popular move will result in minuscule improvement in Illinois’ air quality, while adversely impacting two of the state’s most important quality job creating industries. One must also be concerned about how the governor’s rules will affect the much-anticipated Illinois investments the coal and electric power generation industries have had on the drawing boards.
Blagojevich’s highest priorities have been initiatives focusing on children and health care. While not the first to recognize early childhood education as a worthy program with proven results, he’s significantly expanded funding and access. He’s set the state on a course towards government-funded universal pre-school. Georgia and Oklahoma are the only states providing universal pre-school funding for all four-year-olds and older. Blagojevich envisions extending the program to all three-year-olds during his second term. It’s a move that could thrust the governor into the role of national pacesetter.
Universal health care for all children likely will be Blagojevich’s legacy program. AllKids has captured the attention of a nation desperate to provide affordable health care for the uninsured. In three years, the governor’s approach to health care has been to increase the role of government by opening up Medicaid to everyone. He’s expanded eligibility to more people, increased benefit coverage, and taken government-subsidized insurance programs called FamilyCare and KidCare to a new level. His record positions him as a leader of the parade of advocates from across the county who pursue ever-expanding, government-funded health care programs to satisfy the needs of the populace.
While Blagojevich’s initiatives have proven shortcomings, he nevertheless has pursued politically attractive issues, challenged the Republican-dominated federal government, and gained attention from the Hollywood and Washington crowds. If voters aren’t weary of the photo-op governor and his expensive initiatives, he’ll be re-elected. Then, as a highly successful fundraiser from a solidly “blue” state, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Blagojevich camp has a field operation in Iowa by this time next year. IBI