Rauner, Madigan hopeful after meeting — should rest of state be?

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House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, listens as Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address in the Illinois House chamber in January. File Photo. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD — For the first time this year, political foes Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner put aside their differences to meet privately for about 40 minutes — with both signaling some optimism over a resolution to the historic budget impasse.

Time will tell whether the talk on Thursday will move the needle in ending an impasse that has stretched nearly 22months. The two haven’t met since December when leaders’ meetings were called off by the governor, who requested that Democrats present a budget plan.

With the legislative session ending on May 31, the clock is ticking loudly — as social service agencies and publicuniversities pump out their last resources. And Moody’s Investor Services on Thursdaynoted that the ongoing budget mess has delayed over $1 billion in payments to school districts — rating Chicago Public Schools as one of the state’s most vulnerable school districts.

On Thursday afternoon,hundreds of faculty, staff and students from Illinois colleges and universities rallied outside the Capitol, blaming Rauner for the impasse while pushing for a budgetthat includes full funding for higher education. The rally once again broughtout Democratic gubernatorial candidates eager to criticize the governor. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, too, aimed to capitalize on the protest as he met with higher education heads in Chicago to discuss the budget fiasco’s impact on higher education.

All this played out after the two chief adversaries quietly huddled.

Madigan and Rauner met privately in the governor’s office on Thursday morning, according to Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. In a statement, Madigan said he requested the meeting “to ensure he understood my desire to pass a full-year budget and discuss the urgent need for a resolution to the state budget impasse.”

So far this year, Rauner has pointedly said the speaker is trying to force a “crisis showdown” over state worker pay. He’s spoken out about a Democrat-sponsored House Bill dubbed a “lifeline” that would send $815 million to social service agencies and universities, saying he wouldn’t support that bill without a permanent property tax freeze. Raunerblamed “stopgap” budgets for higher state debt and higher taxes down the road: “They keep our universities, community colleges and social service agencies on the verge of collapse with no permanent funding to keep their lines of credit intact,” he said in a Facebook video.

The governor has also blamed Madigan for stopgap budgets that he said are meant to force a tax hike. And said he’d only support a tax hike with his preferred reforms, including a permanent property tax freeze.

Madigan, too,has criticized the governor this year — primarilyin statements. In a flap over Rauner’s proposal to privatizea lane on the Stevenson Expressway,the speaker accused Rauner of being “more interested in helping his wealthy friends.”

But on Thursday, the speaker pointed out “seven compromise budget bills” that were negotiated since Rauner took office.

“Schools, human service providers, rating agencies and thousands of others have asked us to do one thing – pass a budget. I ask the governor to turn his focus to the budget,” Madigan said in the statement.

The governor’s office, in turn, said it’s “optimistic” that a balanced budget could be enacted — with reforms.

“For the first time in more than two years, Speaker Madigan today hinted that he may be willing to enact a truly balanced budget with changes that will help create jobs, properly fund our schools and lower property taxes,” Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said in a statement. “It’s too soon to tell if the Speaker will ultimately agree to follow through, but the governor remains optimistic that all sides can work together to enact a balanced budget with changes that fix our broken system and restore balanced budgets for the long-term through strong economic growth. ”

The speaker and the governor met as Rauner’s chief of staff Richard Goldberg testified before a Senate appropriations committee about “budget priorities.”

There, Goldberg, too, posed some hopeabout the ability to broker a deal.

“We all want to see us move forward with a truly balanced budget that funds higher education, that funds MAP. In the governor’s introduced budget we set our vision for increasing MAP funding and for moving forward with a full budget for higher education,” Goldberg said. “I think that’s achievableif we work together. We have a few weeks left ofthis session and I think the governor has vocally said that he’s hopeful that we will be able to resolve our differences and move forward with a truly balanced budget.”

But there were some jabs as well — with some senators urging the governor tolead instead of dictating his reforms, whilequestioning the administration about the governor’s role in the stalled “grand bargain” talks.

“There were times that we believed, many times, in the Democratic caucus that we were going out on the floor to vote on the grand bargain and we were then informed that because the governor’soffice was not supportive — didn’t think there was a deal good enough for him, goodness knows — that they weren’t going to be able to vote on it,” state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said.

“The Republican votes were coming off. That happened to us several times. The goalpost had continued to have been moved. So you can’t sit there and say that Democrats were not willing to vote on it. In the Senate, the Democrats and Republicans had been working very closely together, very collegially,and I’ve been very appreciative of that fact. And when things broke down it was because there was an intervention by the governor’s office.That’s not where we’regoing with this. And that’s not where I want to go with this. ”

Goldberg said the governor is trying to be flexible.

“The goal posts haven’t moved. They’ve widened perhaps to make it easier to get an agreement. If they’re moving, they’re moving closer to you overthe last two years,” Goldberg said. “I don’t know what else the governor can really do to make himself more clear to you that he is trying to achieve a truly balanced budget with changes to the system.”

“He can suggest that they vote on the grand bargain bills or else actually file an amendment,” Steans interjected, adding it’s not productive to lay blame on the General Assembly.

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