Photo by Bloomberg News
As a Republican legislator told me the other day, the chief cause of this long state government impasse is that we have a House speaker who also wants to be the governor and a governor who also wants to be the speaker.
This isn't a new phenomenon.
As far back as the 1980s, House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to get legislators a role in state union contract negotiations. He didn't trust Gov. Jim Thompson to negotiate affordable contracts, so he wanted a way to reject the deals or at least influence them.
Way back in 1991, rookie Republican Gov. Jim Edgar wouldn't agree to renewing a tax hike and passing a state budget until Madigan agreed to a statewide cap on property tax increases. Governors have no formal authority to introduce and pass bills. That power belongs exclusively to the General Assembly. But within weeks Madigan and Edgar agreed on a collar county-only tax cap and they moved ahead.
The lengths to which each side has gone this time around most certainly are new, however.
Just look at what's commonly known around the Statehouse as the “AFSCME bill.” The legislation would force the state union contract talks into binding arbitration to avoid a public employee strike. Madigan says Gov. Bruce Rauner can't be trusted to negotiate in good faith with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, but the bill amounts to overturning decades of legal precedent and vastly reducing the governor's powers during the negotiating process—which Madigan thought was too union-friendly decades ago.
Like Edgar before him, Rauner refuses to support a tax hike and a state budget until he gets some economic reforms. For example, he wants to reduce workers' compensation benefits and rein in union rights to help local governments and school districts deal with his proposed property tax freeze.
But unlike Edgar, Rauner hasn't been able to impose his will on the legislative branch, even after more than a year of trying. His repeated demands that House Democrats rise up against their leader and side with him have been waved off as pipe dreams. Aside from maybe Donald Trump, Rauner is the least popular Republican in this state among Democratic voters. No way are those legislators going to jump in bed with him.
Meanwhile, without a budget, vital groups like Lutheran Social Services of Illinois have closed down huge numbers of invaluable programs, such as drug treatment centers. Sexually abused children can't get help, and neither can runaway teens. More and more students are choosing out-of-state universities for fear that Illinois colleges will close.
What we need here is a timeout. Everybody needs to go back to their own corners—and their own constitutionally mandated roles—for a while.
A few days before the spring session's official conclusion, Senate President John Cullerton told the governor that the two sides just weren't close enough to a deal. Cullerton proposed a temporary budget to get the state past the November elections, when Democrats might feel more free to negotiate items that unions would oppose.
Rauner flatly rejected that, believing they were closer to an agreement on nonbudget items than Cullerton admitted. On the very last day of session, though, the governor flip-flopped and demanded his own temporary budget. The General Assembly adjourned without taking action, partly because Madigan refused to allow the governor to dictate another legislative action.
A temporary budget is not a solution. It's not even all that responsible. And a brutal, divisive election may very well make it much more difficult to work out a compromise.
But it's the only way to prevent a complete governmental collapse. If they can't at least do this, we're doomed.
A contributing columnist to Crain's, Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.