Rep. Biggins infuriated his fellow Republicans by switching his position and voting for a $3.7 billion borrowing plan supported by Democrats. The money would be used to make the state’s annual pension payment. Without it, the state would have to slash programs like education and human services and health care or delay the payment, which could cost the pension funds tens of billions of dollars in the long term.
The first attempt to pass the borrowing bill failed by one vote, with Republican Reps. Bill Black and Bob Pritchard voting for it. Democratic Reps. David Miller and Jack Franks both voted against the proposal.
Biggins is retiring at the end of this ter
m, and it has been rumored for weeks that he is searching for a state job. Because of that, he has been on a very short list of Republicans who some suspected might be called upon at the last minute to help the Democrats pass a controversial bill. They definitely needed him last week.
The House Republican caucus had taken a firm position against the pension bill, claiming the plan to borrow to make the state’s pension payment was simply “kicking the can down the road.” More importantly, they believed that Gov. Quinn would be forced to the negotiating table if they could stop the bill, which required a three-fifths majority to pass. They thought they could use the failure of his plan to push him to cut the budget even more, or at least create chaos and make the Democrats look bad.
Immediately after Rep. Miller’s “no” vote caused the pension bill to fail, House Speaker Michael Madigan huddled with Miller, who sits two chairs down from Madigan’s official floor seat. A few minutes into the conversation, Miller made a motion to reconsider the vote and the Republicans then met in private for an hour.
Miller, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, dodged reporters after the vote and sprinted into the governor’s office. Rep. Biggins strolled in later.
Biggins spoke at length by mobile phone with a top Democratic operative after the initial floor vote. He reportedly told the operative that he was thinking about switching his vote and asked the operative for advice.
The operative offered to help Biggins obtain whatever he needed from the Quinn administration, but Biggins reportedly declined, saying there would be time enough for that in the coming weeks, if at all.
The operative then helped Biggins draft a statement to the media, which Biggins wrote down verbatim, explaining that he has had trouble remembering details like that since his stroke six years ago. Not long afterwards, Biggins met with Quinn’s chief of staff to discuss his vote.
Democrats say that Biggins has privately expressed frustration and disappointment with his caucus and his party for weeks. He has been unhappy with what he considered to be an obstructionist minority leader who refuses to cooperate on much of anything, and was also reportedly appalled at conservative state Sen. Bill Brady’s gubernatorial nomination and gaffe-prone candidacy.
Meanwhile, the House Republicans began pressuring Rep. Pritchard, who had voted “yes” during the first round. They used a strong call to party loyalty to eventually flip Pritchard the other way. Rep. Black had made it clear that he would not switch his vote and held firm throughout.
When Biggins didn’t show up for caucus, the Republicans suspected that he was about to flip. They were right. Both he and Miller switched to “yes” during the second roll call and the bill passed. Miller said he received nothing for his vote, but he has a tough campaign ahead against former GOP state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and he will need all the help he can get.
Many of Rep. Biggins’ colleagues were beside themselves with rage at his vote-switching. Rep. Jim Sacia passed by Biggins while Biggins was speaking to reporters and called him a “two-faced son of a b__.”
But Rep. Black told me as many as a dozen House Republicans wanted to vote for the pension bill. They voted against it because of the absolute party position against the proposal.
So, while I can easily sympathize with Republicans who felt blindsided by a guy who broke his word, it’s mighty tough to feel sorry for anyone who stuck with their party instead of voting their conscience.
Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.