State Budget Crisis: Don’t hold your breath
We’re all still waiting on a plan from either side.
By Rich Miller
Top folks in the governor’s office said they didn’t quite understand last week why the Senate Democrats and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman were so upset with them about canceling last Thursday’s leaders meeting to discuss ending the long Statehouse impasse and finishing up an incomplete budget.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s chief of staff reached out to Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, last Wednesday to see whether he’d finished up a budget framework. Harris, who Madigan refers to as his “chief budget negotiator,” had reportedly made it clear earlier in the process that he wanted to get input from House Democratic membership before moving forward with any budget proposal. He hadn’t yet been able to do that, which led to the decision by the governor’s office to cancel last Thursday’s meeting.
Trouble is, the press release announcing that cancellation was sent at almost exactly the same time as top Democratic staff were informed of the news. And that led to internal confusion and more than a little anger.
“I’m seriously floored by this,” said one clearly ticked off top Dem involved with the negotiations. “Every time we start to make progress they pull the plug.”
Public comments by Madigan’s spokesman (who is not involved with negotiations) were a bit harsh: “Somehow they had it in their heads that we’re going to take over some executive action [by proposing a full budget]. I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Steve Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times.
But the real reason the Democrats haven’t presented a plan after almost two years of demanding that Rauner propose one is that if they do lay out an actual spending plan, they’d have to essentially reveal the size of the tax hike they’d prefer, which is why Rauner hasn’t done it, either.
It wouldn’t be difficult for the governor to take the Democrats’ spending proposals, subtract out expected state revenues and then label what wasn’t yet funded as “the Democrats’ tax hike plan.” Or, more likely, “the Mike Madigan tax hike plan,” since the Republicans truly relish whacking the unpopular House Speaker.
That may not happen, but the complete lack of trust among Statehouse leaders exacerbated by the governor’s year-round campaign style pretty much makes that expectation a reality.
After all, I already get more than a dozen e-mails almost every day from the Illinois Republican Party slamming individual House and Senate Democrats for being Madigan’s minions. A “tax hike proposal” from Madigan could exponentially increase those attacks.
Not to mention that the governor’s state party sent a video “tracker” to the Statehouse this month to harass a few politically vulnerable House Democrats. The party posted video of one somewhat embarrassing encounter on YouTube. This stuff is, at the least, inanely juvenile and, at most, darkly autocratic. The governor’s party shouldn’t be paying people to follow opposing party legislators around Springfield with a camera. Period. And it could easily escalate out of control if the other side starts responding in kind.
In the past, the leaders and the governor would all figuratively hold hands and jump off the tax hike cliff together. But, in the past, nobody was blasting out campaign press releases just days after the campaign ended and hounding legislators with video trackers. So, nobody trusts anyone enough to do that now.
And that’s why Senate President John Cullerton went on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” program last week and said, “It’s not a matter of who’s going first,” but then firmly and repeatedly demanded that Rauner had to be the one to go first.
Even so, they actually appear to be making some slow progress behind the scenes.
Despite public comments by Republican leaders that reconstituting the rank and file legislative working groups was a waste of time, a small group planned to meet last Friday with the governor’s people to engage on a workers’ compensation reform plan. Cullerton said earlier in the week that he was confident a deal could be struck, particularly if it focused on weeding out fraud and abuse. Speaker Madigan said after last Tuesday’s meeting that he was willing to negotiate on that topic.
Another small working group was also scheduled to talk about local government consolidation and state mandate relief. Madigan said he was willing to engage on that topic as well. Madigan also said last week he was willing to talk about pension reform, which is another major Rauner demand and for which Cullerton already has a proposal.
They just need to find a way to trust each other enough to make it all happen. Don’t bet on it yet.