But the "Great Republican Landslide of 1994" knocked Madigan off of his speaker's chair and out of power. And then something changed.
The most logical route back to the majority was to win races in Cook County's south suburbs, so Madigan began polling to see what made those voters tick.
He discovered that Southland voters responded well to promises of more "accountability" in the schools. Property taxes were rising, test scores were falling, and too many schools appeared to be failing. So "accountability" it was, and the watchword was repeated like a mantra by Madigan's candidates, most of whom won in 1996, putting Madigan back in the majority.
Nobody thought Madigan really meant that "accountability" stuff. The speaker is legendary for shamelessly running campaigns on both sides of an issue in different parts of the state.
Madigan used his inaugural address after his 1996 victory to call for comprehensive education-funding reform, but he also said he wanted more student discipline and greater accountability.
By "accountability," Madigan said he meant eliminating the most prized possession of the teachers' unions: tenure.
"You and I don't have a lifetime guarantee of a job. Why should they [teachers]?" he told the stunned audience.
His idea didn't go very far, and observers assumed that Madigan was just using the issue to hold onto those suburban seats, which he did in 1998, with support from the teachers' unions.
But the comments kept coming. In 2000, when the teachers' unions killed his bill to reimburse private schools for some state mandates, Madigan said the unions "don't want competition in education in this country or in this state."
Madigan has butted heads with the teachers on several occasions, but statehouse observers are still shocked whenever he doesn't immediately bend to their will.
He doesn't always follow through on his union-unfriendly proposals, but he occasionally will. Madigan blocked a plan by Governor Rod Blagojevich last spring, for instance, that would have essentially turned the state's teacher-certification process over to the unions.
The teachers' unions stick with Madigan because they won't get a tax hike if they don't. But their frustration with the speaker is obvious. The Illinois Federation of Teachers has reached out to the House Republicans more in the past 12 months than they have in memory. During last summer's overtime session, the Illinois Education Association paid for a private plane to fly House Republican Leader Tom Cross to a Chicago fundraiser and then back the same evening.
I told you that story so I could tell you this one.
An early-retirement benefit for Downstate and suburban teachers and school administrators is making big news these days. Since 1980, school workers have been allowed to retire before they turn 60, if they pay a fee, which is often paid by the school district.
School boards use the "early out" program to save money by taking high-paid teachers off the payroll and replacing them with lower-paid newbies.
The retirement benefit expires in June. Teachers and school boards want a five-year extension.
The problem is that a large number of districts entice older teachers into taking early retirement by boosting their salaries, which increases their pension checks.
And that leaves the state holding the tab. The state funds the retirement system, so by jacking up the pension outlays, the locals pass their high costs along to the rest of us. And because so many people qualify, the pension system estimates the five-year extension will cost a whopping $870 million.
The extension bill passed the Senate unanimously, but Madigan stopped it, claiming he was worried about the cost.
The speaker says he wants school districts to pay more to fund the program, and perhaps limit raises during a school employee's final years, or limit the impact on the state's obligations to retirees.
The unions and the administrators counter that stiffing retirees and forcing financially strapped school districts to spend more is wrong when the state already isn't doing enough to support schools.
Still, $870 million is a lot of money when the state is barely making its own ends meet.
The point here is don't be surprised this time if Madigan squeezes the unions.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).