What we’re seeing in Springfield right now could be a level of intellectual virtuosity unmatched in the modern age, as three unrivaled masters jockey for the dominance of a political philosophy. Of course, it might not be.
When Governor Rauner takes to the road to campaign for his reform agenda – loosely encompassing right-to-work zones, a property tax freeze, reductions in the coverage of Worker’s Compensation plans, redistricting the State and enacting term-limits – he’s not in Springfield negotiating these issues with his rivals. Is that smart or not smart?
“That’s been an interesting theme over the past few months,” explains Tribune reporter Kim Geiger, who’s been covering the Governor’s road show. “He came out in February. He laid out his agenda. He said – this is what I want. Initially it was this really long list with all of these bullet points, dozens and dozens of them. Then he hit the road, and went to try and sell this plan to local voters around the state. He was on the road for a few months. He kind of stopped that in May when the Legislature started moving pieces of his agenda and knocking down pieces one-by-one. And now that we’ve passed the May 31 deadline he’s back on the road and he’s pushing the agenda again.”
But now there’s a political twist. “This time he’s much more forcefully going after Mike Madigan and John Cullerton, trying to lay the blame for this budget problem on the two of them.”
It’s not easy being an opposite-party Governor facing veto-proof majorities in both chambers. WBEZ’s political reporter Tony Arnold says, in a way, Rauner doesn’t have many choices. “The way he’s doing it is campaign style, because it’s not like he can go to the Legislature to get them to pass these things.”
“He narrowed down all his bullet points to about five things,” Geiger explains. “And the five things happen to be things that really target the key Democratic power bases, right? Organized labor. Trial lawyers, the ability of Democrats to hold power by drawing maps. And term limits. He’s going after the guys who’ve been there for decades.”
So Illinois is already behind schedule in passing a budget, and there are no clear signs that a budget’s coming soon. And with the sharp division between the Governor and the Legislative leaders, Rauner has to resort to theater to get his points across.
“The General Assembly, their core purpose is to pass a budget,” says Geiger. “So it makes sense. Mike Madigan is saying – Rauner’s operating from the extreme – by attaching all these non-budget issues to the budget. But really – the budget is where he has leverage. Once you get a budget deal, what’s he gonna do? Go to the Democrats and say – now I would like all these other things? That’s not gonna happen.”
We ask the panel if the Governor is being out-maneuvered by Madigan and Cullerton. Arnold says, not necessarily.
“He hired quite a few people who’d actually been around Springfield a very long time. His Chief of Staff, his Budget Director. He’s also contracted with people not from Illinois at all. One of the budget hawks that he’s hired has gone through several states talking about how to make cuts in a way that balances your budget. So he’s done this combination of people who’ve been around, mostly the Republican Party for several years.
Arnold says that the Democrats have their own challenge – keeping the legislature focused on the need for additional revenue. “If you get into the nuance, which is what the Democrats are trying to do, it’s, well, if you want to keep your school doors open, we have to talk about property taxes. They’re tied together.”
And if we ever get through this budget process, something entirely new will begin.
“You’re gonna see what Rauner’s starting to do,” explained Geiger, “which is target very specific Democratic Representatives. People are going to have to get more used to who their Democratic State rep is in next year’s campaign. It’s a year away, but I think people are gonna be hearing more about who their State Rep is, in an effort by the Republicans to try to take down Mike Madigan. Sometimes the threat is more powerful than the money itself, just having it looming there over their heads.”
So the 2016 campaign should be getting under way in about three or four weeks.