Governor Bruce Rauner has met with dozens of state legislators both individually and in small groups since his election. By all accounts, every meeting has been cordial, and he has scored lots of points with legislators who aren't accustomed to this sort of gubernatorial attention.
Then he had the Senate Black Caucus over to the governor's mansion for breakfast.
It started out well enough, but things turned south in a hurry when Rauner said he couldn't accept the Senate Democratic majority's stand-alone proposal to patch about $600 million of the current fiscal year's $1.6-billion budget deficit with transfers from special state funds. He wanted, he said, an "all or nothing" solution.
Rauner repeatedly said he wouldn't raise taxes to solve this year's budget problems and therefore absolutely needed to make big cuts. Legislators should "trust me," Rauner said. "We don't know you" was their reply.
And since his proposed budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1, demands huge cuts to major social programs, why should they trust him to not go after those same cherished programs in this year's budget if they give him the carte blanche he is demanding to make whatever reductions he desires?
The governor in turn warned the legislators that up until now he's been blaming former Governor Pat Quinn for this mess, but if they didn't give him what he wanted he'd start blaming the General Assembly. Threats don't often work too well with that caucus, to say the least.
You may recall that Rauner's public criticism of the Senate Democrats after they moved their budget fix bill out of committee last week was pretty harsh. "After weeks of detailed negotiations, including three hours yesterday morning," Rauner's spokesperson said via a press release, "it is clear that Senate Democrats are more interested in playing politics than solving this problem."
But Rauner was told by caucus members that as far as they knew there had been no "real" negotiations. Instead, Rauner's staff has been meeting with legislative staff. But that staff has no authority to approve any agreements. The legislative "budgeteers" (appropriations committee chairs) have so far been eliminated from the process. And they, along with the chamber leaders, are the only ones who can negotiate any deals, particularly in the Senate.
Indeed, a spokesperson for House Speaker Michael Madigan said last week that his boss did not view the staff talks as "negotiations." Instead, he said, staff is listening to the ideas presented by the governor's budget folks and is offering advice on what is doable and what has to be changed to be legal.
And speaking of the House, the governor also accidentally stepped on a landmine during the meeting. Rauner had met with a few members of the House Black Caucus the night before, and he chastised the Senate Democrats for not working with him like the House has been.
As anyone who has ever visited with African-American state senators undoubtedly knows, there is no more "anti-House" group in their entire chamber than the Senate Black Caucus.
"We're not the House," the governor was informed.
Making matters somewhat worse, failed African-American Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson showed up in Springfield the day before and asked Senate President John Cullerton to convene a Senate Black Caucus meeting with him that very day.
Wilson essentially offered himself up as a conduit to the Republican governor, whom he supported last year. One member did give him a list of items on her wish list, and he apparently took it to the governor. Rauner told the Caucus that he'd read the list and could support almost everything in it for next fiscal year, but he would need them to back him 100 percent this fiscal year. His offer was firmly declined.
At one point, the governor's demands grew so loud and insistent that one Black Caucus member noted aloud that Illinois voters "didn't elect a king" last year.
Senate President Cullerton has so far avoided the fate of his Democratic predecessors, who almost constantly battled internal caucus intrigue and coup attempts. He has done this partly by listening respectfully to all sides and not proceeding without consensus. Unless those wounds are healed quickly and the governor begins to accommodate opposing views, he is going to have a really tough time with his budget fix.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.