The political blame game is almost always just below the surface in Springfield, but it really becomes thunderous this time of year, when lawmakers are locked in the final gasp of budget talks.
Frustrations are high. Blustering is extreme. Movement is all but nonexistent.
Despite the glacial pace of action, there they are, our elected officials, saying the other side is driving Illinois into the ground. And then neither side budges.
This is the annual ballet under the Statehouse dome. The charade is time-honored and understood well by lawmakers because it’s been happening like this for decades. Until recently, a budget deal would be struck and we would miraculously survive another year.
But that’s not very likely to happen this time, even as the impasse costs $11 million more each day and agencies and schools cut services, our economy suffers and confidence in state government plummets. We haven’t had a working, complete state budget in two years. As of midnight June 1, that will be three, a humiliating achievement.
Here’s how bad it is: Last week, it made news that House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, was willing to talk about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s plan for workers’ compensation restrictions and a property-tax freeze.
Talking. A conversation. Sharing of ideas. That was news.
Such dialogue is a big deal because Rauner, a Republican, made those issues the cornerstone of his “turnaround agenda” in the 2014 election against Gov. Pat Quinn. And he’s made those two pieces a condition of signing off on a budget plan, so any movement there is seen by optimists as an indicator that a break-through will happen.
We hope it does. We support Rauner demanding substantive change on property taxes and workers comp, both critical to cutting costs for businesses.
Another positive sign: House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, seemed to signal that he’s willing to work with the governor by appointing top surrogates to search for a solution. One option is an agreement that would increase the income tax then make spending cuts.
Democrats are sticking by several requirements intended to help the middle class, as well as a health care measure that protects insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions and closing loopholes so corporations pay a minimum income tax.
Republicans have said these are just overtures – and that Democrats are bluffing and using political-grandstanding to slow progress.
“House Democrats under Speaker Madigan have shown really no good-faith willingness to engage in negotiations for true change, true reforms to our system,” Rauner said on Tuesday. “My sense is this is probably a last-minute attempt to create a distraction and derail the senators who seem to be making progress and coming close to an agreement.”
Remember, a previous effort, nicknamed the “grand bargain,” called for increasing taxes, putting steps in place to allow local governments to consolidate, and expanding gambling. It collapsed. Only recently did the Senate plan resurface with pieces that could get support from both sides. For example, local property taxes would be frozen for five years while personal income tax would go from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent for the same period.
Another plan that failed to gain traction would fund universities and social service providers.
For lawmakers, the different options are helpful political theater because both provide a certain amount armor. After all, Democrats and GOP can factually say they offered options and sought compromise. That may be true. But it doesn’t make it right.
Time is running out. When June 1 hits, there will be more blame to go around than ever.