Monday, May 26, 2008

Budget battle tangles Illinois Legislature

Back in the days when he was the all-powerful chairman of House ways and means, Dan Rostenkowski would tell a story of his early years in Congress, when he had just managed to move “up and out” to Washington after serving a couple of terms in the Illinois General Assembly.

Illinois’ political geeks were trying to put together the map of legislative district boundaries for the 1960s. Rostenkowski decided he wanted to play the role of powerbroker – the D.C. big shot who would craft a plan for the people of Illinois.

IT NEVER HAPPENED that way, because the political leaders let Rostenkowski know that his input was not desired – he should “butt out.”

It’s too bad nobody gave former congressmen J. Dennis Hastert and Glenn Poshard the same advice. The two retired politicos spent their time in recent weeks trying to craft a list of capital projects that Illinois government could provide to communities across the state.

But their efforts may have been a waste of time, as any attempt to approve a capital projects plan is bogged down in the mess of approving a budget for state government’s upcoming fiscal year.

The "Statehouse in Springpatch" has the potential to (again) be a place of gloom and doom for political people this summer. Photograph provided by State of Illinois.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said all spring he wants the General Assembly to approve a capital projects program, in addition to a government budget. He recruited the retired members of Congress, picking the two because of the appearance of bipartisanship (Hastert of the GOP and Poshard of the Democrats).

THE TACTIC DIDN’T work. The list of nearly $31 million worth of public works construction and repairs across Illinois is largely being ignored by the General Assembly. The only thing Poshard and Hastert accomplished was getting their names (and reputations) intertwined with the budget morass.

In fact, the current status of the Illinois General Assembly is that everybody is ignoring everybody.

Both the state Senate and Illinois House of Representatives are working to vote on bills that they say would be a budget. Both chambers are passing their own versions of a budget. But there’s no guarantee that any of this will go anywhere because there’s no guarantee their bills will be identical.

To an outsider, it looks as though everybody is trying to set the stage to be able to say that they did their share of the work toward approving a government budget by deadline for fiscal 2009 – it’s the other guy who’s at fault.

THE HOUSE WILL blame the Senate, which will blame the House, and a few people in each chamber will blame Blagojevich, who will blame the General Assembly. Thursday will come and go without a state budget plan in place.

And the General Assembly is likely to spend a chunk of its time this summer in activity in Springfield – just like last year.

Instead of being the powerbrokers who brought their congressional knowledge to the Statehouse to reach a deal, Hastert and Poshard will become the pair of politicos who fell into the Springpatch and couldn’t escape.

Why do I suspect that nothing is in the works?

IF THERE WERE any serious chance of getting a budget deal through the Legislature this week and on to Blagojevich for his final consideration, this weekend would not have been so quiet at the Statehouse.

Literally, this is the week that is supposed to be the culmination of all activity for the General Assembly’s spring 2008 session. The Legislature would have worked through the weekend. All those bills that were introduced that have not yet been killed off are supposed to come up for final votes this week.

The legislative leaders would have been engaged in meetings with each other and with Blagojevich’s financial advisers so as to finalize a deal. This would be “hell week,” with the only fact making the long hours bearable was the knowledge that it is all over after Thursday.

That is not happening because of the mood by which no one trusts anyone else at the Statehouse. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has gone so far as to say that meeting with Blagojevich is a waste of his time because the governor is not the kind of person who wants to bring coalitions together to reach a budget deal – or any other kind of deal.

IF THERE WERE really a chance of something happening this week in Springfield, the Legislature itself would be in session on Memorial Day – albeit in an abbreviated session beginning at, oh, say, 5 p.m., which allows lawmakers to attend whatever holiday parades or other celebrations are taking place in their hometowns during the day.

Then, they could rush to the Statehouse for a late night session that could result in them learning more details about how close all the sides are to a budget proposal by which Illinois government would operate beginning July 1.

Instead, legislators are able to devote their entire day Monday to the holiday, making speeches and other comments to show off their great patriotism in hopes that it will translate into a few more votes when they run for re-election come Nov. 4.

Try asking your local legislator what is going to happen with the state budget once he/she returns to the Statehouse Tuesday morning. Nobody knows.

EVERYBODY TALKS OF wanting to make a priority of avoiding the long, drawn-out procedure that occurred last year – when the Legislature didn’t approve a budget for state government until mid-August, and on-going problems that should have been dealt with during the spring didn’t get resolved until early 2008 (remember the repeated crisis situations related to Chicago mass transit?)

But short of some sudden, unexpected ability to put aside political egos and negotiate, there’s no reason to expect that the scenario will not be repeated this year.

So what do we get to look forward to?

Lawmakers talk of passing some barebones spending plan that keeps government running at its current levels (which means anything innovative or new or desperately needed won’t happen this year).

TO THAT END, the state Senate approved its own version of a budget that only increases spending by $1.7 billion. Public education as a whole across all of Illinois only gets a $200 million increase, which is piddly considering that Blagojevich likes to think public education funding is his priority.

Come Friday, both the Senate and House likely will make statements saying they’re done for the summer.

They’d like to think that passing a budget will pressure Blagojevich into signing it into law just to avoid a stink. But if the Legislature doesn’t go along and accept the goal of a capital projects plan that Blagojevich has always said is a priority, then there’s always the good chance he could veto.

That would mean lawmakers being forced to return to Springfield during the hot, humid summer months that make everybody irritable. In fact, if I had to bet money on what will happen in the next few weeks, this would be my guess.

WE WILL HAVE an irritated Legislature trying to pass a new budget plan into law in late June, trying to beat the end-of-month deadline when the lack of a budget could result in shutdowns of government agencies.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich will be preparing to make statements blaming the Legislature for all that is wrong with the political world.

And if they have any sense, Hastert and Poshard will have “butted out” of the Statehouse mess long before then. I can’t imagine any political person being enough of a masochist to willingly subject themselves to the inanity of the current Statehouse mess.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Former Reps. J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Glenn Poshard, D-Ill., tried to be the big-shot powerbrokers (,0,3962323.story) that brought compromise to the Illinois General Assembly. Our state’s legislature once again proved itself immune to a dose of common sense.

Anybody who was hoping Illinois state government would give them a little bit extra funding this year (,0,7309229.story) can forget it.

Among the state’s financial problems this year are the growing size of debt related ( to its pension programs for various types of government employees.

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