Illinois Still Can't Reach a Budget Deal
By Monique Garcia
After seven months, the legislative sausage-making process to put in place a new state budget has hit a wall: The governor proposed a spending plan and lawmakers passed one, but the governor vetoed it and lawmakers failed to override him.
The end result is that Illinois enters its fourth week without full authority to spend money, and there's no clear path through the political logjam that threatens to shut down parts of state government.
At this point, it's historically been up to the governor and legislative leaders to hash out a deal in private. While the occasional talks are taking place, signs are that they've been less than productive and don't appear likely to bring about a quick agreement.
"I don't necessarily presume that there will be some kind of deal put together between the governor and legislative leaders," powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan said last week.
For now, Madigan has indicated he'll keep sending Gov. Bruce Rauner piecemeal budgets to try to prop up critical social service programs, while Rauner maintains he won't sign them into law.
"Rather than passing one-month, out-of-balance budgets that hurt social service providers and the most vulnerable, Speaker Madigan and the politicians he controls should compromise with Gov. Rauner on passing a truly balanced budget along with much-needed reforms that will turn our state around," Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in a statement.
The political enmity between Rauner and Madigan remains a major stumbling block. Rauner has aired TV ads to try to blame Madigan as the source of the state's problems, while the speaker repeatedly counters that the governor is "extreme" for connecting the budget-making process to approval of his agenda to help businesses and curb union power.
It's difficult to see peace talks progressing when two of the state's biggest politicians are still firing at each other. Frustration among many lawmakers is evident.
"We need a reset. We're back to square zero, we're back to square negative two," said Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston. "It's an outrage, it's an embarrassment."
Part of the impasse is that not enough pressure has built up to force Democrats and Republicans to reach a deal. Rauner signed the education budget, so schools will have money to open on time this fall. The law is set up to keep pension checks and lawmaker salaries flowing, and judges have ordered that workers should get paid and the state's child welfare department must be funded.
Many social service agencies that care for the disabled, elderly and addicted are still getting money because the state is so far behind in paying its bills, but that spending authority will run out in the coming weeks as the comptroller gets around to making good on vouchers dated July 1 and beyond.
One immediate pressure point evaporated Friday when the Illinois Supreme Court opted not to quickly hear Attorney General Lisa Madigan's appeal of a pair of legal cases on whether state workers can be paid in full absent a budget. Rauner has assured employees they will get paid during the impasse, and so far he's found help in keeping that promise from the courts. A speedy court ruling that turned off the paycheck spigot would have hurt Rauner's leverage.
Another factor in the stalemate is that there's not much of a template of how to proceed. Illinois has had divided control of government before, but the legislature and governor eventually were able to compromise. The most recent parallel to the current impasse is 2007, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was locked in a fight with fellow Democrats over his desire for a major increase in education spending and a massive expansion of state-subsidized health care. Speaker Madigan favored a smaller budget.
That year, the governor and lawmakers agreed to a one-month budget before Madigan teamed with then-Senate President Emil Jones Jr. to send Blagojevich a full-year budget that he eventually signed on Aug. 23. Blagojevich used his veto powers to cut $500 million from that plan. The House overturned that veto, but the effort was blocked in the Senate.
This time around, however, Rauner has vetoed much of the budget lawmakers sent him, but Democrats were unable to stick together to override him and put a spending plan on the books.
On its face, the two sides aren't terribly far apart on the budget. Both agree there need to be cuts. Democrats say a tax hike is necessary, and Rauner hasn't shut the door on the idea. It's how to get there that's the problem.
Rauner says he won't even consider raising taxes unless lawmakers also go along with his wide-ranging agenda, which includes freezing local property taxes, enacting term limits, curbing collective bargaining rights, reducing what businesses must pay injured workers and limiting awards in civil lawsuits.
Democrats are fundamentally opposed to many of those ideas, saying they will diminish the middle class at the benefit of corporate bosses. They've accused Rauner of hijacking the process to push ideas that have nothing to do with the budget, while the governor contends his plans are critical to putting the state on more sound financial footing.
"We're stuck, and here's the issue. I believe the math problem of the budget is not that difficult to solve," said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. "Where we're stuck is that we absolutely have to have some reforms in order for this state to get on, and more importantly, stay on a path to prosperity."
It's now become a case of which side will flinch first. As Rauner continues to pitch his stance as positioning Illinois for a better economic future, Democrats have focused on the human toll of the fight. They've held hearing after hearing featuring testimony from those with the most to lose, namely people who rely on social service groups that receive the bulk of their funding from the state.
Most will be able to stay afloat for a few more weeks because the state is still paying for services they provided in the last budget year. But once those payments become current and the comptroller can no longer cut checks, groups that provide everything from home care for seniors to autism therapy for children could lay off workers, cut services or close completely.
Democrats say they're focused on piecemeal budget bills to keep those groups afloat, though that approach also could put Rauner in a political trick bag in which he must choose to approve or reject funding for sensitive programs.
A spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, agreed a budget resolution doesn't appear to be in the "near term" but said it's time for all sides to get back to the bargaining table instead of focusing on political theater.
"The Senate president is at a place where he thinks we need to recognize that we've dialed back the clock to January or February, and it's time to get a credible budget plan on the table," spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.
But as the last several months have proved, that's easier said than done. "I've never seen anything like this," said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields. "It's two different worldviews."
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