As bipartisan budget talks accelerate in the Illinois Senate, Republican leaders on Monday slammed state House Speaker Michael Madigan for offering up Democratic deputies to meet with Gov. Bruce Rauner about the governor’s preferred reforms — calling the plan a “ploy” to delay a budget deal.

The Illinois political theater is playing out, but there is no final act in sight — with just 23 days to go before the end of the legislative session.

The need for a budget is of course amplified by the fact that the state hasn’t seen a full one since July 2015, leaving a $13 billion backlog of bills, and social service agencies and public universities in the lurch.

Bipartisan Senate budget talks are progressing — with Republicans signaling they’re on board with an income tax hike and expansion of service taxes, paired with a property tax freeze. Republicans, sans Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, jumped ship on the “grand bargain” package in March — with top Democrats blaming Rauner for pulling the plug. At the time, Republicans said they needed more of a comprehensive agreement, including one with property tax relief.

Key Republicans now say the governor could be agreeable to the latest Senate initiatives. But the measures must of course pass the Illinois House, where Madigan on Monday offered up state Reps. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, Lou Lang, D-Skokie, Arthur Turner, D-Chicago, and Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea,  “to work with the governor to identify areas of his agenda where compromise can be reached.”

“The House has taken action on several of the governor’s requests, and this group will be able to discuss his further proposals and consider how they would affect the state,” Madigan said in a lengthy statement, which also highlighted the state’s dire finances amid the budget impasse.

“It is our strong desire that Governor Rauner join us in putting the budget first,” Madigan said. “By showing the governor that House Democrats stand ready to work with him in good faith, it is my hope that he will return to the negotiating table and work with us to end the budget crisis.”

Republicans weren’t buying it.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said Madigan’s announcement “should bring great caution to the public especially as we enter the final weeks of the legislative session,” while accusing Madigan of creating another working group “in an attempt to waste time and obfuscate from their record of more than 20 years of reckless spending and failed policies.”

Radogno, too, called the action a “ploy, typical of his pattern of behavior.”

“It is clearly a political reaction to the progress being made in the Senate and our good faith efforts to reach a comprehensive solution,” the Republican Senate leader said in a statement.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown denied those claims, saying the speaker’s offer is an effort to “move along.”

“All we did today was appoint senior leaders of our caucus to go work with the governor on the off-budget issues. We have [state Rep.] Greg Harris, a whole team working on an FY [fiscal year] appropriation proposal and these other people kind of take the governor’s off-budget issues. It’s trying to recognize the calendar and move along.”

Brown said House Democrats are “recognizing what has transpired” with “grand bargain” talks — alluding to the package’s plug having been pulled in March.

He said House Democrats are working to improve a “lifeline” spending plan and continue to address “off-budget issues,” citing workers’ compensation, a tax freeze and redistricting, among other items.

Flynn Currie said no reform items are “off limits.”
“It’s up to the governor to define those. His agenda does seem to change from time to time, and I’m not ever sure what’s on it today, but our point is he seems to have off-budget issues. We are happy to meet with him and try to figure out how to resolve those issues.”

Meanwhile, behind the theater curtains, a bipartisan group of senators met at least six times last week, and again on Monday to iron out spending details of a budget plan. Those meetings were among senators and the governor’s budget director. Among the measures Republicans are supporting: a five-year income tax hike and expansion of the service tax paired with a five-year property tax freeze. But there are also deeper talks about a comprehensive plan.

“This is about the spending side — to live within a balanced budget within the grand bargain,” State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington said. “We’re meeting on that but there are discussions that need to continue to make sure we get parity on property taxes and on the workplace reforms to create jobs. The spending cuts that are involved in this are what we’re mostly going through right now and how do we take the budget I introduced and make it balanced.”

Brady in March introduced seven budgets bills — which assumes the grand bargain’s package, specifically the revenues, the borrowing to pay down the backlog of bills and pension reform, among other items in the package. Rauner’s introduced budget also relied on $4.6 billion in a category called “working together on ‘grand bargain.'”

Brady — who has been in talks with the governor’s office – was asked by Radogno to get involved in negotiations with Illinois Senate President John Cullerton. And he posed some optimism of getting a stamp of approval on the most recent negotiations with the governor.

“The governor’s office assisted me in the technical aspects of writing the budget. We’re going in the framework the governor has always supported — workplace reforms, a balanced budget and property tax relief,” Brady said. “It’s my belief that if we get something passed that Senate Republicans can support, then we have a good chance of him supporting it as well.”

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, the chair of the Senate’s revenue committee said there’s still concern over school funding amid a property tax freeze.

“The crux of the issue is what does that do to school districts? So there is a policy question as to when you freeze property taxes in districts where schools are already in deficit spending, what happens? So that is a topic of conversation,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson noted talk of the expansion of taxes on services is still ongoing, which she called one of the most difficult parts.

“Illinois is not accustomed to taxing services, so politically speaking that’s a very, very heavy lift,” Hutchinson said. “So far I’ve been taken all the hits but that’s par for the course because whatever ends up happening they’re going to be a part of the negotiated package. … Not that we hope to raise taxes or like to do that.”

Still, she called talks “fluid” and urged senators to keep plugging along.

“This is a really fluid situation but it requires people to not pull the plug on it,” Hutchinson said. “You have to stay in it until it’s done.”