Staredown continues in Springfield
By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD — With Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats locked in a battle of wills, it’s getting testy in Springfield.
Mutually exclusive agendas have a lot to do with the gridlock and resulting sniping.
Rauner, of Winnetka, wants substantial change in five areas: workers compensation standards, lawsuit reform, a property tax freeze, term limits for elected officials and independent legislative redistricting.
The Democrats want money for state services beyond the roughly $32 billion estimated available for the current fiscal year, 2016. Although they’ve passed a roughly $36 billion spending plan, Democrats say they’re willing to work with Rauner on bringing that down.
The governor and Republican legislators, though, have stood together. Until Democrats yield on some of Rauner’s agenda items, which the GOP consider structural reform, they can forget about Republican cooperation on raising new revenue.
But the governor’s agenda items shouldn’t hold up the state’s annual budget, say Democrats, and they add the GOP simply doesn’t have the legislative votes to pass Rauner’s proposals, anyway.
Other than Rauner paring his original list of demands down to five, neither side has given much ground to date.
The regular spring legislation ended May 31 and the fiscal year ended June 30. Now, more than a dozen days into fiscal year 2016, little has changed other than the heat of the rhetoric.
For the most part, legislative session days involve trying to make the other side wear the blame for the lack of a state budget and the fallout that goes with it. (And when there comes a budget, someone has to take the heat for any tax increases or spending cuts.)
In particular, the relationship between the governor’s office and the House Democrats seems to have slid considerably from the early days of 2015, when promises of shared governance, cooperation and bipartisanship were the stuff of winter.
For instance, House Democrats last week released a list of seven committee hearings saying “nearly 40 aides to Gov. Rauner or agency directors failed to attend.”
— House Revenue and Finance, chaired by Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion — Three times in June and July, the committee asked for Rauner or a designee to discuss salaries in the governor’s office. The governor’s office did not send anyone to testify.
— House Labor and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, asked the chairman of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (or a designee) to attend a July 8 hearing to discuss the commission’s 2014 annual report. No one showed, Democrats said.
In other instances, it appears the Democrats didn’t get who they wanted, but the governor’s office did send someone to represent the state’s chief executive.
In a House Committee of the Whole hearing on the effects of a government shutdown, for example, the administration did not send agency directors but did send the chief of the governor’s budget office and the governor’s lead attorney.
“That’s not reasonable,” House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said of the no-shows. “It’s not reasonable for an executive department anywhere in America to decline to participate in legislative hearings.”
Madigan said House Democrats would continue to “provide an opportunity to participate in our three-part government here in Illinois.”
“We’ve considered the issuance of subpoenas, but we haven’t done it,” Madigan said. “We’re not interested in taking extreme actions.”
Asked about the list of absences from hearings, Rauner press secretary Lance Trover said, “We’ve attended dozens of hearings. If we attended every single one of their sham hearings we wouldn’t be able to run the government.”
“Sham” has become a GOP buzzword this year, and it’s been applied by Republicans in regard to Democrat-led committee hearings that the GOP contends are no more than “gotcha politics” and to floor votes in both chambers that GOP legislators say are purely for show.
For example, House Republicans have criticized the Democrats for repeatedly holding votes on property-tax freeze measures.
Republicans say they haven’t cast “yes” votes because the bills are not the actual administration-backed proposals and because, they contend, Democrats have no intention of actually passing those pieces of legislation.
GOP legislators largely vote present or don’t vote on such measures because a “no” vote could be used against them in campaign literature even though, they say, the bills were never intended to pass.
“They’ve not ever taken up our true bills,” Rauner said. “They should vote on our bills.”
Madigan disagrees, having repeatedly said, “These are real votes.”
So while the GOP contends the Democrats conduct hearings and run floor votes that are little more than “political kabuki theater,” Democrats argue they’ve given many of the Rauner agenda items fair chances.
And the debates are warming up.
Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a member of Democratic House leadership, on Thursday taunted GOP representatives for uniting behind the governor.
He called the GOP representatives Rauner’s “enablers and minions” and suggested the GOP simply fill its House seats with 47 pictures of Rauner.
“It’s beneath (Lang) and beneath this chamber,” said Ron Sandack, R-Downer’s Grove, the GOP’s floor leader.
Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, caught a shot from his own team when Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Norridge, referred to him as the lone Republican seated on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Franks is a conservative- or independent-leaning Democrat who represents a heavily conservative area. He took the jibe largely in stride, but added this is has been an extremely charged and partisan session in a town already known for hardball politics.
“I’ve never seen it this polarized,” said Franks, who has been in the House since 1999.
As an anti-tax Democrat, Franks is used to being the odd man out, but he said he thinks both parties are making a mistake by taking lock-step votes and holding to hard lines.
“We don’t have to sit here and take it,” Franks said of rank-and-file members. “We’re elected to represent the people. We’re not pieces of furniture.”
For the moment, little appears to be changing. Action in the House last week centered on paying state employees in the absence of a state budget.
Each party had its own ideas of how to do that, and each dredged up its take on why state government is in gridlock. In the end, a Democratic plan authorizing a month’s worth of employee pay was sent to the Senate.
But it has its own complications — it’s attached to a one-month stopgap state budget that Rauner opposes — and the larger shutdown picture remains unchanged.
And that’s how it goes these days.
Rauner has his five points, which he says are essential to getting the state’s business and political climates cleaned up. Without them, Illinois will continue to lose jobs and people, he says.
Democrats say Rauner’s agenda would decreases wages and standards of living for the middle class, and they simply can’t buy in.
The GOP is united behind Rauner, the political newcomer who carried 101 of 102 counties to defeat a Democratic incumbent — and who has tens of millions of campaign dollars banked.
Democrats have their supermajorities — 71 seats in the House and 39 in the Senate — and are standing with their leaders, Madigan in the House and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.
And it doesn’t look like anyone’s backing down.
Rauner, speaking to American Legion members, recently said, “We’ve had a lot of political leaders in this state who have been fighting to advance the the political class rather than the middle class in illinois. We’re going to change it right now, big time, here this summer.”
Madigan, whose public remarks tend to be cool and controlled, seems unruffled at becoming the governor’s foil.
Since the end of May, he’s kept to the same drumbeat in his weekly news conferences: He’s ready to work with the governor, and the budget deficit — not the Rauner agenda — is the biggest issue before the state. A balance of cuts and revenue are needed, he says, and that can be done if everyone behaves in moderation.
Asked why the governor so often points to him as the problem, Madigan gives wry smile and says, “He would say it’s because he likes me.”