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Commentary: Another Blagojevich tsunami is about to hit land

Illinoisans have experienced a governmental tsunami without fully realizing it.

The toll mounts daily, and so do the odds against robust recovery. It's not just the smothering deficit. It's not just the lack of political will to confront and correct it. It's also the insidious mangling of a management structure crucial to the effective expenditure of our tax dollars.

Many of us grasp the enormity of our fiscal catastrophe. More of us condemn the incumbency protection and paralytic partisanship that trump statesmanship. However, few of us realize the extent of damage to a network that must become an integral component of reinventing, retooling and reviving our state government.

Rod Blagojevich did not give a whit about managing a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Even more egregiously, he punished and demoralized thousands of those who do - or did.

Soon after taking an oath he repeatedly flouted, Blagojevich summarily fired administrators - the competent as well as the inept. He insulted and intimidated the survivors. He froze their pay and actually reduced their net income while those they supervised were getting raises due under collective bargaining agreements. He made it easier for unions to partially offset the loss of thousands of members they lost to budget cuts by facilitating their recruitment from previously hands-off positions.

About 95 percent of employees in the 16 largest agencies under the governor's control are organized, compared to less than 87 percent when Blagojevich took office. That includes approximately 4,000 supervisors and policy advisers who had considered themselves part of the management team before embracing union membership as an income enhancer and, more important, a port in the Blagojevich storm.

Some were doing little or no management, either because they were listless or powerless - or, in many more cases, had assumed duties once handled by subordinates whose jobs were darkened by downsizing. But the substantial majority of these new union members have been dedicated, productive implementers of administration policies and directives. Among other things, they have evaluated employees and programs; promoted, demoted and disciplined workers; advised upper management on policy and procedure issues and, in some cases, been involved in strategy sessions on collective bargaining matters.

One does not have to hold a doctorate in public administration to identify the inherent conflicts. Already, countless field offices and other work places are staffed exclusively by union members. Can the governor or an agency chief realistically expect one union member to discipline another? What happens when a middle manager is asked to push changes in assignments and schedules - or to oversee further downsizing - against the rigorous resistance of fellow union members?

Although they see the problems as less pervasive and pronounced than some of us fear, reasonable labor leaders acknowledge the potential for problems and seem ready to work with administration officials to ameliorate them. The lack of bright lines between managerial and labor prerogatives does not serve them well; neither does an administration in chaos. After all, the unions have been opportunistic but not primarily culpable.

This situation was created by a chief executive and exacerbated by his successor. After Gov. Patrick Quinn told non-union workers they must take 24 unpaid furlough days this year, AFSCME recruiters were deluged with calls from prospects, including those in top-tier management posts.

Rod Blagojevich's utter contempt for sound, stable management did not get him impeached. But its negative impact could prove more profound than the actions that felled him.

Candidate Blagojevich made an asset out of his unfamiliar name in 2002 by saying it meant "opportunity for all of Illinois." Now we know it really meant "brace for tsunami."

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

This originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.