You might think that with the state of Illinois’ finances in flames, the top legislative leaders would be in constant meetings with the governor. You might think they were working around the clock to hammer out a compromise. You might think that, but you would be wrong.
For years, there was a routine to the way Illinois’ top politicians would work out their disputes over the budget and other policy matters.
The governor would meet with the four main leaders of the legislature, known as the four tops — that’s the top Democrat and Republican in both the House and the Senate. The meetings were regular, and they’d often last for hours.
Through late May, most people who follow Illinois government looked at the differences between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and top Democrats and thought: they’ll meet, they’ll work it out. Today, however, that seems quaint.
The subject of leaders' meetings — or more accurately the lack of leaders’ meetings — has come up again and again in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s regular news conferences with Statehouse reporters:
Mid-July: “I’m not quite certain when there was a meeting with the governor and the leaders. The governor and I met seven (or) eight days ago."
Mid-August: “A little bit ago, and I don’t recall the exact date. But a little bit ago."
And this week, on Wednesday, Sept. 2: “Last meeting with the governor? I don’t recall exactly when it was."
Two weeks? a reporter asked. Three?
“I’m not going there," Madigan said.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin was asked the same question a few weeks ago — when was the last full leaders meeting?
“It was a month and a half ago," he said.
Working backwards, that would put it roughly at the end of June.
And a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton says his official calendar shows the last leaders’ meeting took place May 29.
Illinois is in uncharted territory: courts are directing spending. And there are stark differences — arguably existential differences — between Rauner and the Democrats.
Rank and file members of each party are being urged, cajoled and threatened to stick together. It’s creating tension, and some of that bubbled up during a long session day this week.
“Where we’re at today, is the citizens of Illinois are being governed by the judiciary and the executive branch," said Rep. Mike Tryon, a Republican from Crystal Lake. "We’re about the most useless politicians in the state of Illinois right now because we can’t come to an agreement on anything."
Fellow Republican Rep. David Harris, from Arlington Heights, was even more pointed in his critique: “Let me say this: Gov. Rauner, Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton, Leaders Radogno and Durkin, I implore you, I beseech you, I beg you — stop this madness."
That said, there is some communication happening at high levels. Both Republican legislative leaders say they’re in regular contact with the governor. And Cullerton’s spokeswoman says the Senate president has met with Rauner monthly and exchanged phone calls, too.
But that’s not the same thing as all five of state government's most important politicians locking themselves in a room together.
Durkin, the House Republican leader, was at a loss for explaining why there haven’t been more meetings.
“The last meeting we had was unproductive," Durkin said. "There has to be something meaningful in these leaders meetings. And I can’t say why there’s not more."
Speaker Madigan echoed that critique, in his own elliptical way.
“Well, we’ve had good, courteous, respectful meetings with the governor," he said.
“But not productive?" a reporter asked.
“Well, they could have been more productive," Madigan replied.
So should the leaders be meeting more?
“I think that we ought to meet as often as would get the job done," Madigan said. "And the job is the elimination of the budget deficit."
And that, right there, is the main dividing line. Rauner’s priority is not only addressing the budget deficit, but also making changes in law aimed at helping businesses and weakening organized labor.
Once again, Durkin: “The governor has indicated that he’s willing, again, to consider his priorities, but they have to give him something in return. That’s what’s called negotiations. and I think it’s important that the Democrats who run these chambers understand that. That there is a pathway to solve this problem, but you have to be flexible in working with the governor and what his priorities are."
The calendar has been filled with pressure points that were supposed to help push the governor and Democrats toward compromise: The end of the legislative session in May. The new fiscal year July 1. Not being able to make the state payroll in mid-July or provide funding for schools in August. But each of these has come and gone, with a mix of courts, consent decrees, the governor himself stepping in to ease pressure.
No pressure, no conversation. And no conversation, no deal.
The problem in the Capitol is not just that the state’s top politicians are talking past each other.
The problem in the Capitol also seems to be that the state’s top politicians are not talking at all.