Louder outcry from voters may be what will be the trick to produce movement from the governor and House speaker
Commentary: Could a reborn Mushroom Caucus be the key to breaking the political impasse that has Illinois’ financial health at death’s doorstep?
The self-deprecatory moniker was coined a generation ago by a group of legislative backbenchers who complained they were kept in the dark by their leaders and fed horse (manure).
Current rank-and-file lawmakers might share similar sentiments, as the faceoff between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan shows no sign of resolution, a test of wills between two men long-time Springfield observer Rich Miller of Capitol Fax aptly described as "a soulless irresistible force up against a heartless immovable object."
Caught in the middle are GOP lawmakers fearful of crossing the deep-pocketed and vindictive governor and House Democrats worried about campaign retaliation from the Chicago Democrat renowned for a long memory of perceived slights.
Meanwhile, the state continues in what bond rating agencies have characterized as “severe deterioration” of its fiscal condition.
The alarming vital signs include:
• An estimated year-end budgetary deficit of $6.2 billion, the amount by which outstanding bills for the current fiscal year outstrip money in the state's main checkbook account on June 30, the last day of the fiscal year. That's the most red ink ever.
• A projected Fiscal Year 2017 bill backlog in excess of $15 billion, representing vouchers which the state doesn’t have the cash to pay, again the largest amount in state history.
• Looming further downgrades to the state's credit rating — already the lowest of any state, ever — to junk status, meaning Illinois will have to pay interest rates twice or more as high as those charged other states, offering windfall returns to steel-nerved, big-money investors.
• A rapidly-shredding safety net for the state's most vulnerable citizens — impoverished seniors, abused children, domestic violence victims, folks suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, homeless veterans, the list goes on.
• Ongoing destruction of a higher education system once among the best in the nation, now crumbling as universities cut programs and lay off faculty and staff, scholarship help for low-income students dries up, and Illinois' brightest young people seek opportunity elsewhere.
The coup de grace could be a federal judge ordering state Comptroller Susana Mendoza to start paying more quickly some $2 billion owed healthcare providers under Medicaid, money that's already earmarked to cover other court-ordered or legally required spending. With not enough cash for everything, the Democratic comptroller would be forced to choose which court orders to defy or which laws to ignore.
Yet even despite the dire prognosis, Rauner and Madigan remain stubbornly at odds.
Both protagonists insist they really, truly want to negotiate a truce that would include enacting a balanced budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, presumably including new revenue to pay for it, as well as to begin chipping away at the old bills.
At the same time, each side accuses the other of insincerity.
The governor charged the Democratic legislative majorities with "dereliction of duty" for ending the spring session as scheduled on May 31 without approving a budget for the 2018 fiscal year, then just a month away.
In particular, he scored Madigan for not putting to a vote a Senate spending plan that included $3 billion in cuts and $5.5 billion in revenue, passed with no GOP votes. Yet he earlier pledged to veto the measure because other priorities of his weren’t included, most notably a freeze on local property taxes.
Instead of a May 31 vote on the Senate plan, Madigan said the House would hold budget hearings across the state, working toward a settlement before the new fiscal year dawns on July 1. Rauner quickly criticized the move, urging the majority party not to hold "sham hearings... just trying to create phony headlines around the state."
Ironically, Democrats noted, Rauner himself was doing exactly that, campaigning statewide for his property tax freeze, term limits and other wish list items.
Bottom line, though, is that Democrats believe Rauner is really not interested in a compromise unless he gets his way in everything. Reinforcing that belief is Rauner himself, who regularly professes publicly a desire to deal, while at the same time working behind the scenes to scuttle serious efforts.
Exhibit A: the so-called "Grand Bargain" negotiated between Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago and Senate Minority Christine Radogno of Lemont, which Rauner rejected because the Democratic concessions didn't go far enough.
Exhibit B: a recent statement by Rauner's education aide, Beth Purvis, that the governor supported 90 percent of a historic school funding rewrite but would veto it anyway because the 10 percent he didn't like was too generous to Chicago schools.
More importantly, why would someone genuinely serious about reaching accord with a political adversary at some future point do so much to make the bargaining even more difficult? For example, repeatedly calling the guy across the table “corrupt”? Or having one's propaganda machine castigate individual lawmakers for a possible tax hike vote you should hope they'll make, as robocalls and digital ads from the Rauner-bankrolled state GOP party did to Democratic targets even as the spring session drew to its close? Or sending out fundraising pieces (from a guy who’s got some $70-plus million already socked away in his campaign war chest!) asking recipients’ support to stop Madigan from raising taxes, thus providing new revenues without which no one but “starve the beast” zealots thinks the ship of state can be righted?
As an aside, one might wish that the GOP attack machine, Purvis included, had a better grasp of history, arithmetic, and/or civics than their polemics suggest. A major theme, of course, has been that Madigan has ruled the state for decades, and so is responsible for its downfall.
But Rauner and his minions seem to be confused in several areas. For starters, the House speakership is an extremely powerful position... but it's only one-half of the legislative leadership. Just as powerful is the Senate president in that chamber. And of course, the legislative is just one of three branches of state government; despite Rauner's plea of impotence — “I can’t save Illinois because of Madigan” —a governor who's willing to deal can get a lot done. Just ask Rauner's GOP predecessors, Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan, all of whom managed to work with Madigan, certainly well enough to get budgets enacted during their collective 22 years in office.
Not to pick on Purvis, the governor’s $250,000-a-year schools czar, but her recent claim that Democrats have been in charge of funding education the past 29 years is flat-out nonsense. Simple math reveals that 29 years ago was 1988. Further research — consulting the Illinois Blue Book, for example — discloses that Thompson was governor from 1977 to 1991, followed by Edgar from 1991 to 1999, then Ryan from 1999 to 2003. So Republicans held the governorship for 15 of the last 29 years, more than half the time. Moreover, from 1993 to 2003, the Senate president was James “Pate” Philip, a hard-nosed, old-school conservative from Wood Dale. Was Pate a Madigan stooge? If some intrepid reporter put that question to Philip, who turned 87 a couple of weeks ago, the response likely could not be printed verbatim nor aired live, but the gist would be “No.”
As a matter of fact, the most far-reaching effort to revamp school funding in generations happened 20 years ago, when Edgar proposed what would have been a $900-million property tax cut plus $600 million in new money to poor school districts, all paid for with $1.5 billion in new income taxes. The plan passed the House, championed by would you believe it? — Madigan, Rauner’s supposed perpetual roadblock to “real” reform. Led by Philip, the GOP-controlled Senate was another story, and the bill was killed in committee.
But if all the bad news so far, and the worse on the near horizon, has failed to move the two bull-headed leaders, what might?
Maybe a new-formed Mushroom Caucus. In the past, both Rauner and Madigan occasionally have acceded to demands from the rank-and-file. Approaching his first year on the job, for example, the governor rolled back draconian cuts to subsidized child care at the behest of individual legislators feeling pressure from constituents. Similarly, a few weeks ago he concluded contract negotiations with a union representing prison nurses whose jobs he wanted to privatize after enough GOP lawmakers were ready to override his threatened veto of legislation keeping the nurses on the state payroll.
Madigan, for his part, always has made electing Democrats to the House his No. 1 priority, just barely nudging out protecting the city of Chicago from hostile interests. Perhaps one of his most out-of-stereotype moves came when Downstate lawmakers feared rising medical malpractice premiums threatened access to health care, especially in southern Illinois. The solution pushed by medical society lobbyists was caps on damage awards, which were enacted over strong protests from the state's trial lawyers, long-time reliable Democratic funders. While the speaker voted against the measure, he did nothing to block its passage.
Similarly, he was among the chief architects of pension changes designed to reduce the state's long-term liabilities to public school teachers, state workers and other public employees, despite objections from the unions representing the affected groups. Here, too, the speaker responded to pressure being felt by rank-and-file lawmakers.
What now might energize the back-benchers sufficiently to demand that their leaders work out an agreement?
Unfortunately, the ongoing devastation of human services, while life-threatening to some of those dependent on care, doesn't directly affect most Illinoisans. But one likely— perhaps the best — incentive would be thousands upon thousands of angry parents laying siege to district offices because public schools aren't going to open for lack of a budget. The mere prospect of such a public outcry should be enough to move most legislators to the point of rebellion, ready to vote for almost anything that would allow schools to open on time, including the necessary new revenues. The pressure certainly would be felt by the governor and the speaker, neither of whom would want to be seen as responsible for Johnny and Susie getting an extra-long summer vacation. Both might be tempted, especially Rauner, to keep the stalemate in place, trying to blame the other guy for not being reasonable. But one suspects most parents would be more likely to say, “A plague on both your houses!”
Recent history suggests the potential of such an approach. When legislative Democrats sent Rauner a full budget for FY16, the governor vetoed everything but K-12 funding. Again last year, only public schools got full-year funding under a stop gap plan agreed to by Rauner and legislative leaders, while most other programs were funded only until January 1, and some were shut out entirely.
If everyday folks, aka voters, press their local senators and representatives hard enough in coming weeks and the lawmakers feel threatened enough, one would hope the two principals would be savvy enough to get in front of the troops lest they be run over.
And the latter-day Mushroom Caucus will have saved the day.