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Opinion

Putting the pressure on nonprofits

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration is proving once again that state government is to be used as a public relations machine, even if it puts inappropriate pressure on nonprofit agencies.

A letter was e-mailed last week to dozens of agencies that receive state funds for their work with drug or alcohol addicts or the disabled. The letter urges the agencies to get behind the governor's "Illinois Covered" health insurance plan.

This is the plan that Blagojevich insists must be paid for by a new gross receipts tax on business transactions at most firms with cash flow over $1 million.

"The time is now," is how the letter begins.

"Show your support for the Governor's plan by completing an endorsement form and writing a letter to your local legislator."

The letter includes a link to a state Web site that makes it easy to document support for the plan. Internet buttons are available to show if the person filling out the form would be willing to share their name with the media as a supporter, speak at a press conference, send a letter to a legislator, submit an opinion piece to the local newspaper, distribute information in the organization's newsletter or volunteer to help at an event.

"The Governor's plan will provide access to affordable healthcare for all people in Illinois, dramatically increase funding for schools, and reforming (sic) the tax system so that it is fair for business and works for families," the letter states.

The letter provides the administration's spin on how much this will do for schools and how it will make the tax system fair. It doesn't mention what even many in the governor's own party say - that a gross receipts tax will be passed on to consumers through higher prices. It also doesn't mention that the proposal is for the biggest annualized tax increase, about $6 billion in GRT alone, in state history.

"The Tax Fairness Plan ensures all businesses do their part to support state programs and services," the letter states.

"THE TIME IS NOW!" the letter repeats. "Support the Governor's plan."

Recipients are encouraged to write to a local legislator, write a letter to the editor, or "share your story" at a state Web site, www.illinoiscovered.com/share/.

The letter was e-mailed by Trina Diedrich, who is listed as MISA manager.

Diedrich said she couldn't talk to a reporter, but did let me know that MISA stands for "mental illness, substance abuse." Those are areas that are the focus of the work of many of the agencies that received the letter.

Diedrich, 39, also shows up in state campaign records. Back in 2002 - the year the governor was elected - she was paid $1,285 per month for four months by Friends of Blagojevich, the governor's campaign fund.

She started working for the state in April of 2003 and is paid $52,404 annually.

One person with one of the agencies contacted saw the letter like this:

"Here we have a state worker, on state time, using state equipment to generate a state-owned note that solicits providers with state contracts to use provided talking points to lobby their legislators to support the governor's health-care proposals.

"We're damned if we do, we're damned if we don't," this person told me about taking the hint and going public with support for the governor's plan.

The bad part of getting involved would be "if we go on the record as being a partisan organization when we're charitable." But not getting involved would mean "we fear retribution from the government."

"The intimation is that support for the governor's program will support our organization," the social service agency person said. "If we do not, we have no way of knowing where we'll stand after the dust settles."

Tom Green of the Department of Human Services said via e-mail that the communication was appropriate.

"There's nothing partisan about saying the uninsured should be able to get health care they can afford. Our mission is to provide health and social services to people who need it. Advocating for better health coverage is totally consistent with that mission - and vitally important to our clients," Green said.

"This isn't a partisan/political issue - it's a cause the department should be pushing to help its clients, so it's totally appropriate to do it on state time. Access to health care will be a positive development for people with mental illness and substance abuse problems."

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