Monday, May 30, 2016

What is a supermajority for?

Tomorrow, unless something miraculous happens, another Illinois budget deadline will be missed.

Illinois has become a national joke -- but many of our citizens, especially those who are poor or elderly, or students enrolled at state colleges and universities, or dependent on government pensions, are not laughing.

The people I talk to all blame Gov. Rauner -- and I agree that Mr. Rauner has been intransigent, unreasonable and wholly derelict in his duty to put forth, and obtain, a balanced budget.

I accept, pretty much without reservation, the Democratic narrative that Mr. Rauner's idea of "compromise" is pretty much equivalent to a demand for unconditional surrender.

But even a political dummy like me understands that Mr. Rauner's pension-ripping, term-limit-demanding, public employee-baiting, union-bashing rhetoric plays well in certain circles. It's just good politics.

I also accept, also without much hesitation, that the Democratic budget, recently unveiled and passed by the Illinois House in a legislative blink of an eye, contains bouquets for every Democratic constituency and interest group without providing the revenue to pay for the largesse. I don't know if it's really $7 billion out of whack, as the Republicans charge, but I can accept that it's a wish list, not a serious budget proposal.

A political dummy like me understands that a proposal like this, that makes extravagant promises to so many, plays quite well in certain circles. And makes Rauner look Scrooge at his worst. Again, it's just good politics.

But I'm old enough to remember Richard J. Daley -- Daley I. I was in college when he passed away; I never met the man. I'd been to a prayer breakfast with Mayor Daley -- and several thousand other people -- just a few days before he died; that was about as close as I got.

I do remember, though, that the first Mayor Daley used to preach that "good government is good politics and good politics is good government." I'm not holding up Daley I as a plaster saint and I don't want to get sidetracked talking about Daley's legacy.

But it just seems to me that, with this saying, the first Mayor Daley had a point. And both sides in the ongoing debacle in Springfield seem to have lost sight of the principle. Again (and this is my partisan bias, I suppose) I can sort of understand Gov. Rauner not grasping the idea -- after all he's just a Republican -- but I'm finding it hard to believe that Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton seem also to have forgotten this basic axiom.

And yet, at least on paper, Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton have supermajorities under their control. In theory, they could craft a real budget, and pass it, and pass it again over Governor Rauner's almost-certain veto.

And it hasn't happened.

Granted, even a political dummy like me understands that any realistic budget will include an income tax hike. I pay taxes. I won't be thrilled about an income tax increase. Especially with my Chicago property taxes going higher than anything SpaceX can launch. But, staying with the outer space theme here, as Carl Sagan might have put it, we are 'billions and billions' in debt. We have to start paying down our debts.

Also, any realistic budget is going to disappoint some interest groups. Not every program can be funded as much as some might like. And surely there must be some sinecures for politicians' idiot relations and soft-landing spots for retired or defeated politicians that can be identified and uprooted. Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton have been in Springfield a long time; if it makes you feel better to say that they're part of the problem, go ahead. But what productive end does that serve? And who is in a better position to figure out where to make the least painful cuts? And there would have to be some significant cuts in a serious budget.

Oh, there'd be howls. In our culture, how could there not be? But all members of the disparate strands of the Democratic Party's supermajorities could find something in a realistic budget to sell back in their districts: The restoration of stability and predictability in various social programs might be more important in Chicago, the cuts and other efficiencies might be more important Downstate or some suburban districts. Putting the state back on a solid financial footing, tax hikes notwithstanding, would appeal to financial and business interests.

Moreover, a budget passed by a veto-proof majority would render Gov. Rauner a complete nullity. He could speechify until he turns red in the face (he could hardly be expected to turn blue, right?) but he would be irrelevant.

And if you really want to get crazy, maybe a serious budget could be made palatable to one or more Republicans. A few more dollars might have to be cut here or there, but it would diminish Rauner even more.

Oh, even a political dummy like me understands there are risks: For example, some vulnerable legislators might be defeated as part of the inevitable anger and backlash that follows any tax increase. But, c'mon, from the standpoint of the Democratic Party, our legislators have the best and safest boundaries that computer science can conjure. Now, a political dummy like me thinks that some of our poisoned, hyperpartisan political atmosphere might dissipate if the state were instead blessed with fair, contiguous, and competitive districts... but we can't expect everything all at once. And we need a budget now. Does anyone seriously think that the Democratic Party would be turned out of the majority in Springfield for doing its job... and Rauner's? Or is there a fear that, somehow, Rauner will get credit, at least in some circles, where it is absolutely not deserved?

But, even if there's a backlash, even if there are losses, even if Forbes or the Wall Street Journal lionizes Mr. Rauner for getting steamrolled -- what is a supermajority for if it's never used?

Why wouldn't proposing and passing a serious budget despite Gov. Rauner be good government and good politics?


Anonymous said...

Jack, the House Democrats do not have a functional super-majority. As you note, "at least on paper." That is all it is. On paper. Jack Franks has never voted for a budget or tax increase. Ken Dunkin is doing his own thing and in no mood to help the Speaker. There may be one or two others who would hold it up. But, just with the first two, you have 69 and are two votes short.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather go back to the Quinn-era 5% income tax than deal with the nightmare of a sales tax on attorney services.

Jack Leyhane said...

Amen, Anon. 12:31 p.m., amen.

Jack Leyhane said...

Anon 5/30 @10:45 a.m. -- Franks is not running for reelection -- possibly because Rauner was gunning for him, possibly because he really thinks he could do more as McHenry County Board Chairman (if he could win election), or -- maybe -- because, as he told the AP, “We’re probably not going to see a budget until January or maybe never … It’s tearing me apart.”

A serious budget proposal wouldn't possibly interest Franks?

And I'm sure you're right, after the Primary, Mr. Dunkin is in no mood to help out the Speaker -- but a serious budget proposal would be about more than the Speaker -- and Mr. Dunkin is probably thinking about where and how he will land in January. Supporting a serious budget proposal might help in this.

And look at the unlikely Republican help that the City pension veto override got.

Look, I don't know if it could work. I do know that the Speaker has some pretty impressive talent at his disposal. And he's not the only legislator with knowledgeable staff and access to sharp people, in and out of government. I also know that -- at least publicly -- it hasn't been tried.

Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton have waited a year and a half for Gov. Rauner to blink. He hasn't blinked. I submit that maybe it's time to try going around him.