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Commentary: A farce worthy of Shakespeare plays out in Springfield

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2009 - A former Illinois first lady downs a dead tarantula during her reality television debut. The state's junior senator blames the questioners for his deceptive answers under oath. Lawmakers enhance incumbency, label it historic reform and flee Springfield having ducked the tough budget calls to eradicate a $12 billion deficit.

Where is Shakespeare, that master of tragedy and comedy, when we need him?

Nearly two centuries ago before Illinois became a state, the bard wrote this often misunderstood passage:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Richard III delivered these first-act lines as his family was celebrating. His brother, another Duke of York offspring, had seized the crown from bitter enemy Henry VI. But mayhem, wrought by Richard himself, soon ensued.

Many of us can identify these days with the morphing of promise to havoc. After the General Assembly ousted Rod Blagojevich, we hoped for a productive, if not glorious, season in Springfield - featuring a legislative session that not only evicted a venal, narcissistic and just plain awful governor but also dealt squarely with his immense damage to the treasury and public trust in the state's leadership.

But the ex-governor, his wife and his appointee to the U.S. Senate continue to embarrass us while the politics of egocentrism, arrogance and gamesmanship thrive in the State House even though the state's best known Elvis admirer has left the building.

Instead of approving controversial cuts and revenue increases - essential ingredients to attacking the operating deficit - lawmakers shamefully adopted a budget that would ignore the sea of red ink and immediately threaten vital state services, reaffirming that they value their own futures above all. Meanwhile, the House and Senate Democratic majorities approved limits on political contributions with a wink that actually empowers the leaders and deters successful re-election challenges to their troops.

Gov. Patrick Quinn embraced the charade that outraged members of his own reform panel. On the budgetary front, he gave scant attention to spending curbs and did not sufficiently educate Illinoisans about the profound impact of revenue anemia on their communities. He and his party's legislative chiefs did not involve Republican lawmakers early enough to test whether they would help solve problems even while blaming Democrats for causing them.

Quinn was too timid with House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. But this essentially honorable public servant, thrust into a horrendous vortex, deserves credit for his courage in trying to confront an incredibly dire situation.

He also should not take the primary hit for thwarting reforms that even modestly threaten the power bases of Madigan and Cullerton and the political viability of their followers. A pervasive problem is that too many lawmakers today view power and position as ends and not as means to forthrightly address major challenges.

During the 1960s and early '70s, W. Russell Arrington was the Mike Madigan of his era in influencing legislative outcomes. When a young aide tried to console the Senate Republican leader by suggesting the legislature's failure to resolve a major issue might advantage him politically, he replied, "That's not the point, Jim. We're here to solve problems, and we didn't solve the problem."

Arrington's lesson in responsible, responsive governance left an indelible imprint on Jim Edgar. Where are the Russ Arringtons of this century? Without them, our state will have many more winters and summers of discontent.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.