I'm fond of identifying Cook County as the Capital of Blue America -- the beating heart of the Democratic Party in the United States.
This week, Governor Blagojevich and the Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly (led by people from Cook County) are showing why that's true.
I'll start with Governor Blagojevich's speech to a joint session of the General Assembly on Tuesday. The House was packed with people -- most senators squeezed in next to one of their two representatives. Even Pate Philip, former Republican Senate President, sat in the gallery, wearing a bright yellow parka that seemed to reinforce his status as a retiree, a symbol of days gone by in the Capitol when Republicans used to run things. Most of the recognizable faces are here, and when Governor Blagojevich enters, along with the pageantry of a reception committee of 5 senators and 5 representatives, everyone stands and applauds. The feeling is a little medieval (the Speaker called on "His Excellency, The Governor" to enter, as per the ritual), but also warm. Judy Baar Topinka shakes his hand, and the chamber seems civil and friendly.
Representative John Fritchey's take on the speech is here, by the way. Video of the address is here.
Governor Blagojevich's political theme was that every child in Illinois should have the same health care that the children of politicians enjoy. It's difficult to defend the proposition that *my* children deserve state financed health insurance, but I won't vote to provide state financed health insurance to *your* children.
The most uplifting part of the speech was his reference to the central role states play in implementing progressive policies that then spread to the rest of the Union. In the 19th century, Horace Mann in Massachusetts initiated the bold idea that education should be for all children, not just the children of the elite and the wealthy. The common school, financed by the government and open to all children, is now the foundation of our economy and democracy. In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania led the way in abolishing child labor (laws later struck down by the conservative judicial activists of the Supreme Court), and later, the federal government followed dozens of states in abolishing the practice. And (in a triangular move), he praised the State of Wisconsin for pioneering welfare reform in the early 1990s which culminated in President Clinton signing federal welfare reform in 1996.
"Great advancements of social progress begins in states."
And then he segued into a stirring line
"We can lead the nation doing for kids what our country did for seniors in 1965" -- and that is providing universal health care. Today, just about every person older than 65 has health care insurance through Medicare. But, that's it. Now we can start from the other end and cover all kids.
Then to the heart of the matter. Blagojevich pointed out that our current health care system is perverse. If you're wealthy, you can afford to buy good health coverage, or your employer buys it for you (with a very generous public subsidy in the form of deducting the cost of the insurance from the employer's tax return and not taxing as income the value of the health insurance received by the employee). If you're poor, the Medicaid program will cover you and your family.
But if you're working with a modest income, you fall through the cracks.
People literally work themselves out of health care coverage in this country.
With a minimum wage job (of $6.50 in Illinois -- another sign of the wisdom of a Democratic state), the working mom qualifies for Medicaid and gets health care for her child. Work hard, get promoted and get paid less than the median income of $36,000, and you lose Medicaid.
The people who work are punished.
"Something is upside down. They are being punished for working." Blagojevich said.
And of course, he's right.
Our current health care system is simply indefensible.
And Illinois is fixing it.
The Senate today passed HB 806 (here), on a party line vote, to authorize the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to administer the AllKids program.
During debate, the Democrats were on both the moral high ground and seemed to connect with the practical, common sense concerns that most people face everyday. Senator Schoenberg (D-Evanston), a wonky legislator from a wealthy district, talked about the people who work 40 hours a week and are paid hourly -- and sounded authentic. Talking about providing health care for all children and not leaving behind the people who work for a living but are too poor for private insurance but make too much money for Medicaid sounded solid and compelling. I could imagine heads nodding in living rooms across the state.
To be fair, the Republicans' main objection that the actual legislation delegates far too much responsibility to an administrative agency is a reasonable one. The bill is rather skimpy. That can be fixed later as rules and regulations can be codified or trumped by new legislation, but it would have been better if the bill had more meat on it.
Tomorrow (or Wednesday of next week) the House of Representatives will likely vote on the bill, and the vote will likely be a party-line vote.
And perhaps this week, Illinois is taking the first real step towards a long-held goal of the Democratic Party to extend health insurance to all people.
It's an exciting initiative and a proud moment for everyone in Illinois who voted for these Democratic candidates.