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With Latest Republican Moves, Democrats See Diminishing Chances For 'Grand Bargain'

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

Gov. Bruce Rauner is pushing to break off a couple pieces from the Illinois Senate’s so-called grand bargain. Democrats say that’s a bad omen for the prospects of an overall budget deal.

A pair of Republican state senators want to move ahead with a plan to permanently cut Illinois pension benefits and provide a one-time cash infusion to the Chicago Public Schools. Rauner tweeted his endorsement of the idea.

Those things had been part of the "grand bargain,” but Republican Sen. Michael Connelly says the state needs to act now,

“We can’t sit around and wait for a compilation of 15 or 16 bills to ... magically appear," Connelly says.

But Democratic Sen. Heather Steans says a piecemeal approach would take off the pressure to do a comprehensive deal.

"My concern is that that means that you’re acknowledging and saying that the grand bargain’s dead, and we don’t want to do that,” she says.

Steans says she and other Democrats are optimistic they can still work things out with Republicans. She says they were almost there — until two weeks ago, when Rauner waved Republican senators off what was supposed to be a final vote.

Meanwhile, Democratic state senators are also rejecting a push by Republicans to give the governor extraordinary budget powers.

The legislation would let Rauner cut spending across government. There would be a few areas of state spending that would be off limits, such as elementary education and debt payments.

At a hearing Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Don Harmon pushed Rauner’s budget director, Scott Harry, to say just what the governor planned to cut.

"If we were to give you this power today, what cuts would you make?" Harmon asked. "You tell me you don’t have any cuts that you would make. ... Doesn’t it make sense to come to us with a list of cuts that you would make unilaterally if given the power to do so?”

“The list does not exist,” Harry said.

The hearing came a week after numerous Rauner agency directors also refused to answer questions about what they would cut.

The administration says it’s “deeply disappointed" Democrats rejected the legislation.

Rauner’s budget proposal relies on the Senate’s grand bargain to address a $4.6 billion dollar deficit.

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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