House Speaker Michael Madigan was his usual self during the final week of the General Assembly’s spring session, passing bills to make one point or another without actually accomplishing anything.
Bills are routinely moved in the House for the sole purpose of creating TV ads or direct-mail pieces or newspaper headlines. Madigan’s only real ideology is maintaining his majority, and he doesn’t consider that to be a bad thing. And maintaining that majority has been inextricably tied for two long years with stopping Governor Bruce Rauner at every turn, despite Madigan’s repeated claims that he’s cooperating and that Rauner should just accept a win and move on.
Whatever else you can say about Madigan, he’s not wrong about that last part. The governor could’ve accepted a two-year property-tax freeze proposed by both Senate Democrats and Republicans as a down payment on reform. That freeze would’ve gotten him through the 2018 election, and he could’ve warned voters that the Democrats would never pass another freeze if he were defeated.
The Senate’s freeze proposal even included provisions for local referendums in 2018 to let voters decide whether to keep their freezes. That would’ve helped the governor gin up turnout among his Republican base next year.
But Rauner wouldn’t compromise with the Senate, and here we are with nothing.
Rauner constantly derides the “headline” bills Madigan loves. But Representative Steve Andersson (R-Geneva) was totally right when he told Chicago magazine: “At this point, there’s not enough reform to counter the damage we’ve done to the state in the past two years.”
Rauner’s own four-year property-tax freeze coupled with workers’ compensation insurance reform that would’ve saved maybe $120 million in Illinois’ $700-billion economy could’ve done some good two years ago. But now the reforms are little more than political cover.
Those reforms won’t come close to making up for the damage already caused by running a government on court-ordered autopilot and then compounding the problem by signing state contracts that can’t be paid. We as a state have starved our universities nearly to death, devastated the social safety net, and, in the process, piled up billions of dollars in unpaid bills, including the $1.1 billion currently owed to K-12 schools that the state has no way to pay anytime soon.
Rauner’s reforms also won’t do much of anything to ease the damage from the much-needed “cure.” The longer Illinois waits, the higher the taxes will have to rise and the deeper the cuts will have to go.
In other words, this whole thing on both sides is a grotesquely fake kabuki dance.
Madigan’s reforms are lip service at best, and Rauner’s “real” reforms won’t come within a solar system of his promised “booming” economy.
So now what? The attorney general’s attempt to overturn a judicial order that state workers be paid without a legal appropriation appears hopelessly stuck in the courts. University layoffs have exceeded 1,500, and lasting damage has been inflicted upon their reputations – but that hasn’t moved the Statehouse needle an inch. Thousands upon thousands of the poorest and most-vulnerable among us have been kicked to the curb, and nobody seems to care. Our bond ratings are ridiculously low and are going lower, but it’s being shrugged off.
The only thing that literally everyone is deathly afraid of is a K-12 school shutdown. There’s a reason why Rauner vetoed everything out of the budget passed in 2015 except K-12 funding. The same goes for including K-12 in the last-minute 2016 stopgap-funding deal.
As long as they can “contain” the damage, the warring parties can continue their bizarre dispute. But a school shutdown would bring out the torches and pitchforks.
The governor has said repeatedly that he won’t sign a partial budget without permanent property-tax relief and term limits, which puts him in a box. But a flip-flop would likely go mostly unnoticed if schools open on time.
Will the Democrats pass a partial budget for schools? I assume the House would; Madigan seems to prefer this war.
The Senate Democrats might be another story. They could impose the terms of surrender during an extreme crisis because their chamber has already courageously approved those terms – a budget, revenues, and reforms. They may have to step up again and refuse to do a stopgap and finally bring this thing to an end.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.