Rauner hosts Madigan, other leaders in budget talks

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — For the second time this year, Governor Bruce Rauner hosted a closed-door budget meeting with his political arch nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and the three other top legislative leaders. 

“We agreed we’ll be meeting every few days as the four leaders and myself,” Rauner said after the meeting concluded on Tuesday afternoon.

The recurring leaders’ meetings in the Governor’s office, accompanied by separate meetings of budgeteers from each caucus, signal something of a return to normalcy in a statehouse that was mired in fiscal gridlock for more than two years. 

Now in his fourth year in office, the governor still has not signed a full fiscal year budget. A deadline for lawmakers to reach a budget agreement looms at the end of the month.

Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) told reporters on Tuesday that, especially in an election year, politicians are eager to finish their work before the May 31st deadline. 

“We agree on having a balanced budget,” Cullerton said. “We agree on getting out of here and nobody wants to go over the summer without a budget.”

The governor reiterated some of the parameters he set during the meeting, stressing the 2018 election should not cloud ongoing negotiations.  

“No new taxes, truly balanced budget and for a full year, [and we should] not [be] waiting to deal with some of the difficult decisions until after the election,” Rauner said. “There was some expression within the conversations about ‘Maybe we should deal with some of these things post election.’ We should not let politics or elections get in the way of doing the right thing for the people of Illinois.”

Republicans aligned with Rauner have fretted publicly that Democrats might attempt to pass a budget without the governor — or block one altogether — in order to deny him a crucial political victory leading up to the pivotal November election.

After a previous leaders meeting in April, Madigan hinted at that possibility, warning Rauner through a written statement that “if he intends to again move the goalposts and create chaos, he should stay on the sidelines and allow serious leaders to continue working cooperatively to address the challenges facing our state.” 

Madigan did not speak to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting, but a spokesman denied Rauner’s assertions that Democrats were scheming about election politics instead of charting the state’s spending plan. 

“It’s apparently the kind of confusion [Rauner] is attracted to, for whatever reason,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown responded, suggesting Rauner had perhaps seized on Cullerton’s public comments to reporters and not to any conversations that had occurred in private. 

“What is true is that there’s an election in the middle of the fiscal year and we haven’t had that before,” Cullerton said, “so that might play a role in somebody’s motivation.” He quickly clarified the political calculations were “Not mine.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has consistently attacked Rauner as the sole source of the budget impasse, while attributing little or no blame to the General Assembly. In a Tuesday visit to Springfield, Pritzker doubted whether or not the governor was truly committed to enact a budget for fiscal year 2019. 

“I believe that Democrats are strongly in favor of actually finally getting a real budget done before the May 31st deadline,” Pritzker said. “It seems clear to me that the governor is not, but we will see over the next couple of weeks whether he is willing to actually work with them to get the job done.”

Pritzker would not comment on the necessity of a revenue estimate, which Republican leaders have insisted is a crucial starting point to any budget negotiation, required by state law. 

“There is a clear reluctance on the part of the Speaker and the President to agree to a revenue number or certify a revenue number, per our statute,” Rauner said. “There’s a reluctance to be pinned down. I would say actually being pinned down and agreeing on a revenue number is key to having a balanced budget.”

“A revenue estimate on what,” Cullerton retorted. “I wouldn’t be hung up on that. That gets into some sort of ‘gotcha’ game and a political fight. It has been perhaps conveniently ignored over the years,” he confessed, but insisted, “that’s not what’s holding us up.”

“It’s a statutory requirement. It’s not a gotcha,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs). 

“It was disappointing because not only did the Democratic leaders say we’re not going to certify our revenue estimate in either chamber, but we asked if they would come to a gentleman’s agreement on what that number is and they were reluctant to come to that – to make that statement,” Durkin said. “So again, how can we responsibly work on a budget that’s balanced unless we have an understanding of what we can spend?”

Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) chimed in too, calling the morning meeting an “important step” toward closing the gap that divides the two parties.

“I think we’ve all agreed that the CoGFA numbers are a realm to begin with,” Brady said, referring to bipartisan analysis from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. “We’d like for [Democrats] to solidify that,” but said there was “nothing we can do” about “their reluctance to do so.”

CoGFA predicts the state will collect $37.865 billion in general funds in Fiscal Year 2019 which, under a repeat budget structure, would represent a $239 million decline in available tax revenue. If the General Assembly doesn’t pursue a similar borrowing plan in the upcoming budget, CoGFA predicts an even larger “overall decline of $2.739 billion.” 

“There’s a number of different things that we would consider to close the gap and that’s what we’re going to ask our negotiators to do,” Cullerton said. 

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