Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shocked, shocked I tell you!

Yesterday's arrest of the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, may have surprised people with its timing, but it was widely known that he had been under investigation for several years. Most people I knew when I worked in Illinois expected him to be indicted someday, as several of his top appointees already had been.

The scale of corruption in Illinois politics - state and local - is beyond comprehension. When I was a visiting faculty member at the University of Illinois at Springfield, several faculty members warned me to think carefully about my voter registration: state officials were likely to look at my party affiliation if I was ever considered for a state research contract. I taught an ethics class at UIS with a class full of mid-career MPA students, most of whom worked in the state government. When we read case studies that examined political cultures in Illinois and several other Midwestern states, Illinois stood out for the degree of ongoing corruption and the pernicious extent of patronage appointments. The students' response was overwhelmingly "So what?" They weren't bothered by the degree to which getting a job as a gas meter-reader, a sanitation worker, or an administrative assistant at the water utility depended on personal connections and party affiliation. To them, that was just the way the world worked.

It seems that government in Illinois exists to distribute spoils to the winners of the elections, not to provide services to the citizens. I knew good people who worked in state government in Illinois (I was a state employee, after all), but politics in the state seem overwhelmingly driven by rent-seeking behavior. When highway construction plans are discussed here in North Carolina, the public discourse focuses on issues like funding, traffic congestion, environmental and neighborhood impact; i.e., services provided and their costs. When Blagojevich proposed a highway construction program last year, the discussion in the paper was all about construction jobs, not about any services provided by the new highways or whether there was a need for them.

Three of the last six governors of Illinois have served or are serving time in jail, and Blagojevich could make that four of seven. He may be a particularly egregious example of corruption in the state, but it will take a lot more than jailing him to change the way the state works.