Sign in / Join

Can budget deal ever get done with Rauner, Madigan at the table?

In March 2017, a historic state budget impasse is in its 21st month. It could very well continue through the November 2018 election.

At the Capitol, the so-called grand bargain proved to be a grand illusion.

Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle haven’t done much to knock down speculation that they’re on the way out of the legislature.

The over-the-top rhetoric is back in full effect. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has returned to his theme that Democrats lead a "corrupt" conspiracy, one used during his 2014 campaign. Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan have pushed new voices to the forefront as they try to push back, including a new comptroller who appears to relish her attack role.

All of those signs point in the same direction: A historic impasse now in its 21st month could very well continue through the November 2018 election. And perhaps beyond — it remains in serious doubt whether a broad budget agreement can ever get done with Rauner and Madigan at the table, and both could remain in power after voters get their say late next year. Whether state government can last that long without melting down is another question.

Illinois is likely to see "a series of what we’ve done the last couple of years — temporary patches, stopgaps and fixes, and that’s not ideal," said a Rauner confidant who spoke on the condition his name not be used.

Democrats don’t trust the governor — the feeling is mutual in Rauner’s camp — and the prevailing view in the House is to wait it out instead of approving his economic agenda in return for a tax hike.

"Why pass a tax increase and then give Rauner the power to spend without telling us where he’s going to spend?" asked a source close to Madigan who was not authorized to speak publicly about budget negotiations. "If (Rauner) got even a little of what he wanted now, what’s to stop him from saying he wouldn’t spend until he got even more of what he wanted?"

Deal … no deal

That even an attempt at a budget breakthrough had to start in the Senate symbolizes the total breakdown between Rauner and Madigan, who stopped engaging in face-to-face talks in early December.

Upon taking office in January 2015, Rauner unveiled a 44-point action plan. Two years later, the evolving wish list he once called his "turnaround agenda" has been peeled back to include only a handful of issues: term limits, a property tax freeze, alterations in workers’ compensation, changes in state worker pensions and an effort to take much of the politics out of the redrawing of House and Senate districts.

Those items have been Rauner’s prerequisite for approving the higher taxes that would be needed, along with sizable spending cuts, to achieve a balanced state budget. While the governor has repeated his call for what he now terms "structural changes," he also has tried to generically modify his demand by saying "there is no one thing, no two things, no three things that I’ve ever insisted has to be in any agreement."

Negotiations led by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton and Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno focused on some items on Rauner’s wish list. The unfinished package included modest changes in workers’ compensation, a property tax freeze, a cap on state spending and changes to public pensions. Other provisions included an attempt to revise state support for public schools and create new casinos, including for Chicago.

Talks broke down when Rauner made it clear that he did not believe the plan contained enough trade-offs for higher taxes. He wanted to see greater efforts to revamp workers’ compensation to benefit businesses and opposed creating a permanent income tax increase in exchange for a two-year property tax freeze. Rauner also contended the plan lacked specific spending cuts and that it was structured for the short term and not the future.

Democrats accused Rauner of pulling Senate Republican votes off the grand bargain bills. Rauner’s team maintains that it wanted to get to a deal — despite the potential political ramifications of running in 2018 after signing a major tax hike into law — and had been close to one.

"The last thing you want to do is jump on a deal that doesn’t help you solve your 2018 (budget) problem but puts you back in the same situation you were in before with both sides in a corner," the Rauner confidant said.

"It came down to three things: workers’ comp, parity in (the length of) the income tax and property tax and budget cuts. Cullerton’s position is ‘This is the deal, take it or leave it’ and as far as we’re concerned, it’s dead and there’s nothing more for us to do because we’re not going to take a bad deal and neither is the Senate (Republican) caucus," he said.

But Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, a lead negotiator, said "it’s hard to figure out" if Rauner truly ever wanted to strike a deal.

"I think he applies this sort-of maybe venture-capitalist approach to deal making where you try to squeeze every bit you can without respect to good faith negotiations that good public policy negotiations require," said Raoul, whose district includes Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. "I think certain tactics that may be very useful in another forum undermine the ability to kind of do things cooperatively in government."

Rhetoric heats up

In recent weeks, many of the themes of Rauner’s successful 2014 bid against then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, as well as those used by the Rauner-subsidized GOP legislative campaigns of last year, have resurfaced. Democrats, too, have ramped up the rhetoric from a variety of voices.

That’s hardened the partisan lines that block attempts toward compromise.

"Unfortunately in Illinois we don’t have so much a democracy as we have a kleptocracy," Rauner said recently on WBEZ-FM 91.5 employing a term often used about Russia to describe a government controlled by those who seek to profit at the expense of the governed.