Mixed Signals, Finger-Pointing as Illinois Begins 3rd Year Without Budget

(Jim Bowen / Flickr)(Jim Bowen / Flickr)

Illinois escaped an immediate slump to “junk” bond status as it began its third consecutive year without a budget—a politically depraved condition that’s a first for modern state governments.

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Whether Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats who control the General Assembly will be able to bridge their differences before credit ratings agencies downgrade the state, plunging it into what S&P analyst Gabriel Petek last month described as a “negative credit spiral” on account of “unrelenting political brinkmanship,” remains to be seen.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has scheduled a vote on a revenue bill for Sunday, though the chamber’s top Republican, Leader Jim Durkin, says there is not yet a “comprehensive agreement.”

Lawmakers spent the first day of fiscal year 2018 in the capitol, where top legislators continued the negotiations kick-started last week when Rauner called special sessions leading up to June 30.

Though they blew that deadline, lawmakers say they began the next day hopeful, that, as Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, put it, that “this would be the day that it would be done.”

The House on Friday had a potentially pivotal display of bipartisanship when nearly two-dozen Republicans joined with Democrats on a procedural vote for a budget; Hutchinson and other key negotiators say they then worked through the night Friday, when they made progress on everything from a budget to workers’ compensation reforms.

“The budget piece is pretty much nailed down,” said one of its crafters, Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago.

Instead, things quickly descended into a round of finger-pointing, when Madigan announced at the start of session that the House would adjourn without taking action, and that while representatives would be meet on Sunday they would not take any substantial votes.

“Our side of the aisle is very concerned about what the nation and what will people be thinking about this state, we had great momentum yesterday in this chamber. Sending our members back home or wherever and saying that we’re not going to come back until late tomorrow I believe does not move us toward resolution of this issue. I still contend that these matters can be resolved very quickly. I want this done today,” Durkin said, to a chorus of whistling and widespread applause. “We can do this. Continue working.”

“Mr. Durkin, did someone tell their members to go home?” Madigan replied.

He then held the House “at ease” for hours, though it took no more material action.

Following the prickly, and rare, back-and-forth between the two leaders, House Democrats accused Republicans, at Rauner’s direction, of moving goal posts and raising eleventh-hour demands.

Hours later, Madigan rescinded his plan for no weekend votes and issued a statement saying that he is “encouraged by the progress we continue to make” so “the House will be voting Sunday on a revenue package that is modeled on the bill supported by the governor, and House and Senate Republicans in their recent announcement of their budget blueprint, and ensures a balanced budget for our state.”

Asked whether it’s a “fake” vote, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told reporters “there will be vote and you can decide.”

Republicans—whose votes are needed to pass any bill, budget or otherwise—say talks haven’t yet led to an agreement that could pave the way to their putting votes on new revenue.

Rauner and Republicans have held firm that they will only sign on to higher taxes if Democrats pass legislation that transforms state government and makes it more competitive. That’s chiefly been narrowed to mean cutting businesses’ workers’ compensation costs, making it easier for local governments to consolidate and doing away with state bureaucratic red tape, and reducing the state’s pension costs through benefit reductions.

While negotiations on both sides of the aisle speak of momentum, including on the basic outlines of a revenue package, a central divide remains.

Rauner has committed to support a GOP package premised on a temporary, four-year income tax increase tied with an equally long freeze in local taxes on real estate (the governor considers it “parity”). Republicans did not, however, introduce a bill that would do so.

Democrats back permanently raising the income tax rate from 3.75 to 4.95 percent. 

Democrats indicate that the vote will be on the permanent version, as laid out in a measure introduced by Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago (House Amendment 2 to Senate Bill 9).

Critics see Madigan’s scheduled Sunday vote as premature, a sign that he is setting the measure up for failure so that he can blame Republicans for prolonging the impasse.

“We cannot just allow the people of the state of Illinois to wonder what’s happening here, to continue to ask ‘why are you guys not doing anything down there?’”

—Lou Lang, D-Skokie

But House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang, D-Skokie, says “it’s time to put it (a revenue bill) up on the board. There are members of our caucus, members of the Republican House caucus, who believe it’s time to put up a vote and see who’s where on these issues. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that.”

Lang said he couldn’t say whether it will set hopes of compromise back if the tax vote falls to defeat.

“We cannot just allow the people of the state of Illinois to wonder what’s happening here, to continue to ask ‘why are you guys not doing anything down there?’” Lang said. “The general public wonders what’s happening here and so it’s time to put a bill up on the board, that people will vote yes or no on, and we can tell the people of the state of Illinois what our values are, how we wish to pay for those values and find out what members of the Illinois House of Representatives support that.”

Admist the fallout, legislators from both sides of the aisle urged calm and patience.

The legislative leaders—but not Rauner, as has been the practice in recent talks—met twice on Saturday.

According to a Republican source, Madigan “cut off all negotiations” following the second gathering.

But Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said that another leaders’ meeting is set for Sunday. He couldn’t give a time; the House is set to convene at 2 p.m.

Saturday marked the last day of Sen. Christine Radogno participated in those discussions as the chamber’s Republican leader.  Radogno, who worked closely with Senate President John Cullerton on a bipartisan “grand bargain” to end the impasse that ultimately was supported only by Democrats, resigned, effective close of business July 1.

As she left a morning meeting, Radogno said Madigan’s original suggestion that there would be no weekend votes meant that “we are not going to land the plane, so to speak, before the state gets to junk bond. That is very disappointing.”

Madigan has written letters to the three main credit agencies on Friday following the bipartisan budget vote and resulting—albeit brief—surge of optimism in the statehouse asking them to delay downgrading the state as lawmakers continued “to work to put a compromise on the governor’s desk and end this impasse through the next week.”

Given the Fourth of July holiday, there’s some expectation that Illinois has until Wednesday, when Wall Street reopens, to do that.

Radogno called the letter “political cover. That’s nonsense.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties overrode Rauner’s veto of House Bill 1811—a wide-ranging measure that increases a surcharge on cell phone bills from $3.90 to $5 in Chicago, and from .$87 to $1.50 in the rest of the state to pay for upgrades of 911 call centers.

The new law will also give AT&T a long sought-after reprieve from having to maintain landline telephone systems, despite criticisms from consumer advocates like the Citizen’s Utility Board and the AARP.

Don McKinney, the superintendent of Hoover Schrum Memorial School District 157 in Calumet City, said he’s come to the capitol with his daughter on Saturday to witness what he hoped and believed would be an end to the years of gridlock.

Instead, he said, he witnessed a “really a sad state of affairs.”

“You know, if  you can’t govern, you should step down. As a leader, I’m forced to do a lot of negotiation. I work for a seven-member school board who I make recommendations to, we negotiate. We work toward the best for children. They (Illinois politicians) act like … they act worse than the children I work with,” McKinney said in a sort-of impromptu press conference outside the Speaker’s office, where reporters were waiting for legislative leaders to leave and share what had gone on in their private discussions. “If they really did care, there would be different results.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky 

Related stories:

Illinois: On the Brink of a Deal, or a Disaster

June 30: The state will begin a third fiscal year without a budget in place, despite a potential breakthrough Friday morning, when a $36.5 billion spending plan cleared a major hurdle in the Illinois House.

Radogno Resigns, Democrats Introduce Tax Plan

June 29: Two days before a Springfield special legislative session is scheduled to end, Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno announced she will resign Saturday.

Rauner Threatens to Prolong Special Session If There’s No Budget by Friday

June 28: In a statement released Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner said he would prolong the special legislative session “if the legislature fails to send a balanced budget package to my desk by Friday.”

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