Both sides to blame for the budget mess


One of the things that became crystal clear last week during the Illinois Senate’s debate over a new state budget was that the Democratic legislative leaders have completely broken the budget-making process.

It’s no big secret that more and more power has been concentrated into the hands of the leaders, the House speaker and the Senate president. And now they have it all.

Long gone are the days when the appropriations committees had any input. Also vanished is the “budgeteers” system, when appropriations chairpersons and experts from each caucus would sit down to hash out the budget’s details. Instead, all of the work is now being done by staff at the leaders’ absolute direction.

As a consequence, senators barely had any idea about what they were voting for last week when they approved a budget along party lines. The committee hearing before the vote provided precious few details and instead revolved around partisan bickering over a Democratic maneuver solely designed to embarrass the Republicans. Republicans repeatedly denounced the budget process as far too rushed and wholly untransparent and they were right.

This was without a doubt the most top-down, opaque budget ever produced under the Statehouse dome. The Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even agree on whether spending increased or dropped next fiscal year because there was so little time to analyze the data, and the legislation itself is so obtuse that analysis was made extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Granting the governor huge new budget powers in a different bill was at the root of that analysis problem. He’s supposed to make most of the cuts, and nobody really knows how much he will actually slash. The legislation included a 5 percent reduction in personnel and operations lines, but Gov. Quinn would be given the power to hold back even more spending and make major changes to state mandated programs with the stroke of a pen. Nobody knows how far he will really go, so it’s impossible to say just what the final spending level will be.

And then the stinking disaster moved to the House, where liberal independents were upset at the way things were going. Many wanted to see a vote on a tax hike; some wanted cuts. Almost nobody wanted to vote for anything.

The liberal independents were grumbling about “sending a message” by withholding their support, but even they would have to admit that nothing much will improve no matter how much more time they take, and that things would only get worse for their cherished programs if the session went into overtime and the Republicans got a seat at the table.

There’s no way that a tax hike will pass this month. Even the lib indies had to comprehend that cold, hard fact. The House Democratic recalcitrants have proposed almost no cuts themselves and probably wouldn’t support many if they were actually on the table.

Stomping their little feet and demanding they be delivered from this nightmare without coming up with a realistic, doable, passable alternative looked more like the actions of spoiled children who’ve been shielded from unpleasant realities all their lives than like legislators. They let their big daddy (House Speaker Michael Madigan) run things all year without uttering a single word, and now he set the table with one of the most unpalatable spreads ever and they wanted to hold their breath until they turned blue. Nice timing.

Of course, the Republicans are no better. Several whined last week that recommendations from groups like the Illinois Policy Institute weren’t included in the Democratic budget plan. But not one person from that side of the aisle ever bothered to turn those budget ideas into an actual piece of legislation. The reason is obvious. Not even the Republicans were willing to go on record supporting such radical cuts.

Senate President Cullerton rightly pointed out last week that Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Bill Brady had introduced an appropriations bill at the beginning of the year. Instead of turning that bill into an alternative GOP budget, Brady gave up his sponsorship. The House Republican caucus proposed a little over $5 billion in budget cutting “suggestions” earlier this year, but almost all of it was based on a ridiculous and fiscally impossible scheme to use nonexistent dollars from the capital construction plan to fund the budget. And when the House Republican higher-ups realized what they’d done, they backed away from it entirely.

What a mess this state is.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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