Bipartisan Beginnings; But Will The Champagne Bubbles Burst?

Jan 15, 2015

Gov. Bruce Rauner presided over the swearing in of Senators to the 99th General Assembly.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

A new class of legislators were sworn into office Wednesday, making the start of a new, two-year legislative session. It's also the official beginning of a new period in Illinois politics.

With Republican Bruce Rauner in the governor's mansion, Illinois will have a divided government for the first time in a dozen years.

If you stand in the center of Illinois' capitol building, and look up, it's stunning. Mighty columns support an inner dome of illuminated stained glass.  Nine thousand pieces of glass -- in bright yellow, orange, blue, white -- with the Ilinois state seal in the center. There's a plaster frieze, painted bronze, encircling the dome, with paintings of historical scenes, though it's so high up making them out is admittedly difficult. 

Nine thousand glass panes make up the inner dome of the capitol rotunda.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

It's a sight view that still awes David Reis, even after he's spent ten years at the statehouse, as a state representative from southern Illinois. "Every day you wake up and you walk into the capitol and every now and then you get a chanced to look up and see the rotunda. But you always feel that special feeling when you walk on the floor. And if you ever lose that, it's time to go," Reis said.

Reis says it'll be even more special now "knowing that we have a seat at the table and an ally in the governor's office.”

Reis, like many other Republican legislators, has never served with a member of his party as governor. From 2003 until this week, Democrats controlled not only the governor's office --- but also both chambers of the General Assembly; even the state Supreme Court. And not by small margins either. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in the Senate; and have a super-majority in the House too.

That means Democrats have been able to pretty much do what they want: they've passed budgets, an income tax hike, changes to the state's elections laws ... all without a single Republican vote.

That won't change; Democrats only lost legislative seat in November's election. It's what else happened in November that'll alter what happens in Springfield.

"The election of Gov. Rauner changes the political dynamic dramatically," Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said. "Now we can hope, but we cannot assume, that that change will result in better outcomes for our state."

To make Illinois better, Radogno says, legislators must bridge their partisan differences. 

Working with Republicans may seem like something Democrats would want to guard against, but it's the opposite; in his speech at the House's swearing-in, Speaker Michael Madigan literally welcomed it.

"Let me offer my personal congratulations to (House Minority) Leader (Jim) Durkin, and to the other House Republicans, upon your election to the House. And also upon the election of Gov. Rauner. I and the House Democrats wish to welcome you back. Back to the active participation in state government,” Madigan said, to some cheers and applause.

If you didn't catch it, let me make it clear:  Madigan's "welcome" was meant as a jab.

Though Madigan, who is the country's longest-serving House Speaker, hasn't always given Republicans the opportunity to be involved, Republicans have also been able to take advantage of their minority status. They've been able to sidestep tough, politically-dangerous votes by leaving all that to Democrats.
Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, have made clear: not anymore.

With a Republican governor, they're going to demand that Republican legislators share their political pain.
And make no mistake. There will be pain. Madigan says Illinois' looking at a $10 billion dollar deficit over the next couple of years.

"With the loss of revenue caused by the expiration of the Illinois income tax increase, there will be many difficult roll calls up ahead. And we Democrats are very anxious to work together on those tough roll calls.”

Anxious is an apt word.

“Well, everybody’s in a good mood today. But I think ultimately everybody’s waiting, even the Republicans are waiting, to hear what our governor has to say, in terms of what he wants to do.  Been very light on details up to this point, so when he lays those out, I think we all probably will have a deep breath and go ‘here we go," said Democratic Rep. Will Davis, of Hazel Crest.

After the swearing in, Davis and other legislators had full slates of inauguration parties to attend; some of which Gov. Rauner stopped by. In a tweet, Rauner said he "had a great afternoon visiting with all legislators. Looking forward to working together."

But while the champagne may have been flowing this week, the bipartisan bubble may well burst after he gives his budget address Feb. 18.