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Former Gov. Jim Edgar On Budget: 'A Stopgap Is The Worst'

Jim Edgar
Hannah Meisel/WUIS

Former Gov. Jim Edgar expressed a dim view of stopgap funding measures during an appearance Tuesday on the public radio program The 21st. He also shared his views on whether current Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic supermajorities in the legislature will ever come to terms on the anti-union aspects of the governor’s "Turnaround Agenda."

"I heard them say last year: Once we get past the (election) filing date, once we get past the primary, we’ll get something done,” Edgar told The 21st host Niala Boodhoo. “We’re past those and nothing’s been done, and people have just dug deeper in. So I’m not optimistic that after the election they’re going to come together on this if there’s not real pressure — if there’s not the threat of schools are going to be closed, that state workers are going to be let go.”

Interview Highlights

On stopgap funding measures

In general they’re bad. We’ve had partial stopgap (funding) this last year, and it’s just driven the state deeper into debt. Unfortunately a lot of programs have been ignored. So a stopgap is the worst. It’s probably better than nothing, but it’s pretty close in my estimation. The key is to have a good budget. We’ve gone 11 months now without it, and unfortunately every month you go without it make it that much more difficult because the state’s deeper in debt.

On whether the legislature ought to pass a stopgap spending measure by the scheduled end of session on May 31

I don’t think you need to rush into it — as was mentioned, they don’t expect that'll pass today. This will not be a tough vote if this is the final thing. If the leaders agree on it, they can get a supermajority without any problems, and the fiscal year doesn’t begin until July 1. I would hope maybe in the meantime, now that the governor has somewhat moved off his Turnaround Agenda — which has been the holdup on getting a budget for the last year — that maybe they can begin to take his proposal of a stopgap and make it into more of a permanent budget and make it a little more responsible in the long term. Because again, we are spending (at) a much higher rate than we are taking in in revenue right now, and that’s just compounding the long-term problem.

On the downsides of stopgap budgeting

A lot of the solution here is one-time revenue, which means next year we’re going to have to find additional revenues to make up for that one-time revenue source. So stopgap is the worst kind of budget you can have, but I can see where some people would rather have that than no budget.

It also takes the pressure off to get a real budget. If you open the schools, that is the biggest pressure on the legislature to get a budget. Last year, when the Democrats sent the education bill for elementary and secondary (education) and the governor signed it, and the courts also said you could continue to have state workers get paid without an appropriation bill — which I think shocked everyone — that pretty much took the real pressure off the legislature and the governor to sit down and finally come up with a budget.

On the prospects for an end to the budget vs. “Turnaround Agenda” standoff

The stopgap budget might get us to past the election. I’m not sure there’s any more reason to expect a budget after the election than before. The major concern is a tax increase with the election coming up. And if the governor is going to insist on the Turnaround Agenda before he’ll go for a tax increase, I don’t think the Democrats are going to go for that. So I’m not sure putting this off until after the election is going to make it any easier then than it is now.

On what’s driving the standoff

Some of it’s philosophical; a lot of it’s just personal. You’ve had a lot of comments made, commercials run on TV that really made this much more of a bitter fight than it was a year ago. Remember, a little more than a year ago, these two Democratic leaders and this Republican governor worked very quickly to come up with a revision of the (fiscal year) 2015 budget, which I thought was extremely impressive. I had high hopes for the state. But then we got the Turnaround Agenda, which I think made it impossible for the Democrats to go along. And we not have this stalemate that has become much more personal and much more bitter than just being a philosophical disagreement. So I heard them say last year: Once we get past the (election) filing date, once we get past the primary, we’ll get something done. We’re past those and nothing’s been done, and people have just dug deeper in. So I’m not optimistic that after the election they’re going to come together on this if there’s not real pressure — if there’s not the threat of schools are going to be closed, that state workers are going to be let go.

On Gov. Rauner’s "Turnaround Agenda"

I think if you got to the budget, and dealt with revenues and expenditures, you could probably get an agreement. But that’s not what’s been holding this up. What’s been holding this us is the Turnaround Agenda, which Gov. Rauner has inserted. And whether you like it or not, that is something different than usually what happened in the past. Usually, we fought over the budget — we had side issues, but that wasn’t holding up the budget. This is unique to have these other issues be part of the budget process. ...

The governor is the 800-pound gorilla in this deal. It’s also about Speaker (Michael) Madigan, but the governor can set the tone to get I think a budget. And again, if he feels so strong on the Turnaround Agenda — and apparently he does, to hold up the budget — I don’t know what you change. I don’t know how you change that in his thinking.

On top-level budget negotiations

The governor drives the budget negotiations. The budget comes from the governor in Illinois, and to me it was always the No. 1 priority. There were other things I wanted, but I wanted a budget more than anything — I wanted a balanced budget. … The governor has to take the lead, I think, and you’ve got to set aside your personal feelings and maybe set aside certain things you would like to get. You’ve got to concentrate on the budget. ...

There’s got to be trust. That’s one of the things that’s very important in all this — you can disagree philosophically, but if you have a respect or a trust for the other side, it’s a lot easier to come up with some compromise. And unfortunately I think in the last 11 months, one of the other things that’s gone wrong is what trust we saw last spring when they did the revision of the 2015 budget has pretty well disappeared. And that makes it more difficult to get an agreement.

On whether action by rank-and-file legislators can end the impasse

I’ll be surprised if it’s enough to resolve this issue. I think there is a lot of frustration among the rank-and-file. They want a budget. They’re not as tied to the Turnaround Agenda as the governor is. They’re back home and they’ve got constituents — particularly those that come from swing districts where you have all types of constituents you’ve got to worry about, I think there’s a real concern. But I haven’t yet seen — it’ll take the leaders.

On whether Democrats can pass a budget with little or no Republican support

A really bad thing would be for the Democrats to be able to pass a budget with even a few Republicans helping them, and override the governor’s veto. Because you’ve got to have the governor on board to make the budget work. The governor administers the budget. There’s many ways a governor — and I know, I did it — you can hold up spending. So the governor’s got to be part of the process in the end. Even if the Democrats were able to pass a budget and override his veto, I think we’d still have a problem because the governor doesn’t necessarily have to spend the money. He can hold things up for months. So it’s far better — in fact, I think it’s the only way it’s going to work is both sides are going to have to find some common ground and compromise on this.

On whether legislators understand the hardship resulting from the budget standoff

I think a lot of them understand it, and I think they frustrated. But again, they’re sitting there, and their leaders and the governor — particularly on the Republican side, he has all that money to put in their campaigns. … I think there’s probably, my sense, a little more frustration on the Republican side than the Democratic side, just from the rank-and-file members I talk to, though I think both rank-and-files would like to see this thing resolved. There are many Democrats who’ll throw some of the Turnaround Agenda to the governor, to give him something to save face. And then the Republicans, they would like to move on and get the budget. But I still am not convinced yet that you’re going to see a revolt by the rank-and-file, or they’re going to put enough pressure — they could, but I’ll be surprised if it happens.

On whether voters understand the hardship resulting from the budget standoff

Oh, no, I don’t (think they understand). I think a lot of people haven’t been affected yet. Many have, and many are coming more and more to realize. But if you shut the schools down, you’d have a budget resolved in a matter of days. If you didn’t have any state workers, I think that’d put a lot of pressure on. A lot of state services are still being provided. A lot of people who don’t rely on specific grants from the state, I don’t think yet have felt it. They just think these guys are down there fighting and “why don’t they resolve it?” If you’re in education, particularly higher education; if you’re in social services; if you’re in any program that relies on state funding, you know it. But there’s a lot of people who haven’t yet felt that.

I think more and more every day are, but still I don’t think there’s enough outcry to get this thing resolved. And that’ll have an impact. If the schools didn’t open … in the middle of August, I think by the end of August you’d have a budget. I think then you would have enough pressure that everybody would have to back off a little bit and find some compromise.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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