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Illinois Issues: Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

Illinois political leaders’ performance on the budget is reminiscent of the losingest team in modern baseball. 

Commentary — “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” More than half a century ago, the legendary Charles Dillon Stengel voiced that lament out of frustration at the way the 1962 New York Mets he managed were performing on their way to losing a modern-era record 120 games.

Fast forward 54 years and Illinoisans might be tempted to echo Casey’s frustration after the General Assembly called it quits May 31 without approving a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Oh, and don’t forget, lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner still haven’t laid out a full spending plan for this fiscal year, now just a little more than three weeks from ending.

In the aftermath, Rauner labeled the session a “stunning failure,” for which he blamed Democrats in general and House Speaker Michael Madigan in particular.

“Speaker Madigan’s Democrats have controlled our General Assembly for more than 30 years. Speaker Madigan’s Democrats have controlled spending in our state government for more than 30 years,” Rauner said. “The Democrats have spent our state into the toilet for 30 years.”

Apparently history wasn’t the governor’s forte at Dartmouth. Anyone interested in accuracy, rather than cheap political rhetoric, might note that 30 years ago Gov. Jim Thompson was on his way to a record fourth term, to be followed by Jim Edgar’s eight-year stint and George Ryan’s single term. All three are Republicans, of course, but unlike Rauner they had the governing skills and pragmatic sense that let them work with Madigan and his fellow Democrats.

Indeed, Thompson faced Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House for 12 of his 14 years. Moreover, for Edgar’s final six years and Ryan’s entire term, Republicans held a Senate majority. Does anyone in his or her right mind think former Sen. James “Pate” Philip, the outspoken Wood Dale Republican who led the GOP majority, saw himself as a Madigan puppet?

Perhaps if the governor wants to see “stunning failure,” he should look in the mirror, for unlike Rauner, each of his 41 predecessors — even those who later went to jail — managed to get a budget passed, more or less on time, the No. 1 priority each spring session.

They and lawmakers of the opposing party followed a familiar pattern, spending the first few months of the session as tough-talking partisans, then tempering the rhetoric and making the compromises needed to put a spending plan in place. And unlike Rauner and his minions, past governors and legislative leaders certainly didn’t bad-mouth the very people they’d face across the bargaining table, suggesting as Rauner has that Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, even the Illinois Supreme Court, were “corrupt.”

In a pot-and-kettle case, Rauner also has ripped Madigan and Cullerton for approving budgets that were not balanced as he said the Constitution requires, while conveniently ignoring the fact that neither of the budgets he’s proposed were balanced, either.

Actually, the latest target of the governor’s ire, a proposal Madigan muscled through the House only to see it sidetracked in the Senate, met the actual constitutional language that appropriations not exceed estimated funds for a given fiscal year.

Rauner and GOP lawmakers claimed the plan — embodied in a House amendment toSenate Bill 2048 — was out of balance by $7 billion. But in fact the 500-page amendment appropriated just $13.7 billion out of the state’s general funds, clearly less than the $32 billion expected to come in next year, and thus met the constitutional test.

While constitutional, the Madigan plan was woefully incomplete, as no money was included for programs and costs now being funded thanks to court orders, consent decrees and existing laws. Adding in the expected autopilot spending would bring total general funds expenditures next year to some $39 billion, the number Rauner cited. 

Credit H. Michael Miley

On another issue, the governor and his aides first blasted a Cullerton suggestion that a partial budget be enacted. That would get the state past the November election and allow time for negotiators to fashion compromises on the budget and perhaps on some of Rauner’s nonbudget items, such as changes to workers’ compensation. A couple of days later, Rauner was all for the idea, while Democrats balked.

Even as Rauner professed to want an accommodation, his political operatives were readying a negative media blitz targeting downstate Democratic representatives as Madigan’s pawns, intent on bailing out Chicago schools at the expense of their constituents. 

Credit Amanda Vinicky / Bruce Rauner, Jim Durkin
Bruce Rauner, Jim Durkin
Gov. Bruce Rauner came around to the idea of a stopgap spending plan in the final hours of the spring session.

Rauner hit the campaign trail sounding the same theme, Madigan-controlled Democrats in southern and central Illinois betraying their locals in service of the Chicago Machine.

At his first stop — the Vienna Correctional Center in Johnson County, some 345 miles south of Chicago — the governor said the traitorous lawmakers “need to vote for their districts. They need to vote for Vienna. They need to vote for Carbondale. They need to vote for Marion.”

In the session’s closing hours, “The Senate and the House were competing with each other over who can spend more to bail out Chicago with your taxes,” Rauner said. “The money shouldn’t go there; it should go here.”

Ironically, the state actually picks up a bigger share of the tab for public schools in Vienna and in Marion than in Chicago — 45 percent in both communities, compared to 34 percent of Chicago’s cost, according to the most recent information available from the Illinois Board of Education. Carbondale fares worse, with state dollars accounting for only 16 percent of revenues.

But unlike residents of Carbondale and everywhere else in the state, Chicagoans fund their teachers’ pensions with virtually no state help, largely through property taxes. At the same time, city residents pay state income and sales taxes that help cover retirement costs for suburban and downstate teachers.

Credit Amanda Vinicky / John Cullerton
John Cullerton
Senate President John Cullerton first floated the idea of passing stopgap spending to bridge the gap until a broader deal is reached. Rauner initially dismissed the concept when Cullerton suggested it.

 Senate Democrats tried to level the field by including $205 million for Chicago teachers’ pension in a measure intended to fund preK-12 education which also allocated $4 billion for the retirement system covering teachers elsewhere.

Republicans quickly decried as a “bailout” for city schools, which became Rauner’s mantra for his campaign swing.

As has become clear over the last year, though, the crux of the impasse has little to do with who pays what for which programs. Instead, at its heart has been the governor’s insistence that lawmakers approve major elements of his so-called “Turnaround Agenda,” including anti-union provisions he euphemistically terms “reforms,” before he’ll discus state spending and the tax increases inevitably needed to pay the bills.

Credit Amanda Vinicky / Michael Madigan
Michael Madigan
House Speaker Michael Madigan said he planned to call the House into session on Wednesdays this summer. But he canceled session this week and last week, saying the focus should instead be on smaller working groups.

  If the governor is now sincere in wanting to call a truce in his war with Democrats, Madigan and Cullerton should take him up on it. Agree to disagree for now on the anti-collective bargaining provisions so dear to the governor’s heart, and focus instead on completing a spending plan for Fiscal Year 2016 and crafting one for FY 2017 before the clock chimes midnight on June 30, ringing in the new budget year.

Blowing the May 31 deadline means enacting anything will need six more votes in the Senate and 11 more in the House, but once there is a deal, getting enough green lights should be a relative no-brainer, especially because most lawmakers have no opponent this fall — 74 in the House and 48 in the Senate, including retirees.

The brainwork’s not so terribly difficult — more 4th grade arithmetic than quantum mechanics or string theory — if the will is there. Let’s hope it is and statesmanship prevails. As you might recall, the hapless Mets eventually became “Amazin,” winning 100 games and the World Series in 1969.

Illinois Issuesis in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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