What’s to negotiate? Illinois GOP, Dems can’t agree on topic

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Senate President John Cullerton on Wednesday invited Gov. Bruce Rauner to hit the reset button on stalled budget talks and submit his own, new plan to the Legislature.

Cullerton, D-Chicago, said it’s time to stop fighting over proposals that aren’t going anywhere and simply begin anew.

“His plan is dead, our plan is dead — let’s acknowledge that and start moving forward,” he said.

Neither Senate Republicans nor the Republican governor’s office seemed keen on the idea.

“I really don’t think we need another document to get this discussion rolling again,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont. “What we need is honest-to-goodness engagement from the Democrats on reform issues.”

Said Rauner spokesman Lance Trover, “President Cullerton made clear today that his view of a balanced budget is a budget that makes no spending reforms, no pension reform and only raises taxes.”

“Rather than moving our state backward to the failed tax-and-spend policies of the past, we urge President Cullerton to work with us to pass meaningful structural reforms to change the fiscal trajectory of our state,” Trover said.

Cullerton said about 60 percent of the state budget is already effectively spent on the current fiscal year’s must-pay items including pension obligations, debt service, transfers to local governments, court-mandated human services programs and other costs.

When all else is tallied, Democrats and Republicans are only separated from agreement by roughly $4 billion, Cullerton argued.

And that difference, he said, is what the Democratically controlled Legislature and the Republican chief executive should be negotiating — especially considering the state is into its fourth week without a budget.

Told of the administration’s response before his own Chicago news conference had ended, Cullerton said, “Before I even finished? Wow, that’s not good.”

Cullerton also rejected the administration’s characterization of his remarks.

“We’re not calling for a tax increase,” he said. “We are asking him how to balance his budget.”

Cullerton said Senate Democrats would be glad to discuss additional funding, cuts or both.

“If he’s talking about cutting part of this budget, maybe he can get somebody to introduce a bill?” he said.

Radogno argued Democrats are still focusing narrowly as they try to ignore the governor’s calls for structural change in how the state operates.

“The budget piece of this is the easy part of the problem,” Radogno said. “That’s a math problem, and the governor has indicated a willingness to be flexible on the revenue side. But we need engagement on the reforms.”

Cullerton did not sound receptive to the governor’s demands, calling them “pretty radical” and a “corporate agenda.” He also argued the governor was far overstating his legislative and public support.

“This is a supermajority of Democrats and a bunch of pro-union Republicans in this state,” he said. “This isn’t, you know, Oklahoma or Kansas.”

Rauner has repeatedly said the state needs change in five areas: workers compensation standards, lawsuit reform, a property tax freeze, term limits for elected officials, and independent legislative redistricting.

The GOP also says the Democrats’ $36 billion spending plan, about $3 billion to $4 billion short on revenue, proves Democrats just want to raise taxes.

In essence, the two sides can’t agree on what to negotiate. The Democrats say it’s all about the budget; the Republicans say it’s all about the reforms.

Cullerton’s and Radogno’s own remarks about recent talks between the governor and legislative leaders seemed to highlight the divide.

Cullerton said yes, he could probably get a meeting of Democratic and Republican leaders together, but to what end?

“Sure, I can get the speaker (of the House) to come,” he said. “But if it’s like the other meetings, the guy (Rauner) reads off a sheet of paper and we sit there.”

Radogno said that was little wonder.

“Well, he does get a pretty cold reception from the legislative leaders on the other side,” she said.

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