Heat is on Gov. Rauner, GOP legislative leaders to pass a budget

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I’ve read, watched and heard a whole lot of commentary about the upcoming state budget negotiations during the past few weeks and it pretty much all ignores recent history and focuses instead on one-sided claims of pending controversy.

For instance, this is from an April 7 State Journal-Register editorial: “Some Republicans have voiced in recent weeks the thought that Democrats, who control the House and Senate, might not want to have a state budget again, in hopes it will impede GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s re-election chances in November.”


But that prediction — along with other predictions some Republican legislators are making about stuff like the possibility the Democrats will try to jam through a half-year budget — ignores one of the most significant legislative events of the past several years: The 2017 bipartisan overrides of Gov. Rauner’s vetoes of the income tax hike and the budget bills.

That was not some isolated moment in history. Another bipartisan budget-related veto override could very well happen again this year. It would also be easier this time around because there’s no immediate need for another hugely controversial tax hike. All they gotta do this spring is pass a budget with existing revenues.

“The retiring Republicans have great leverage and will use it,” predicted a House Republican who voted to override the governor last year and is now serving out the remainder of his final term.

He’s right. We probably can’t count on all 10 of the HGOP members who voted to override Rauner’s vetoes last year. Some are retiring and may want jobs. Some are running for reelection and may want Rauner’s campaign money. The House Democrats have 67 members, a veto override requires 71, so if half of those ten Republicans vote as a bloc, they can drive the discussion throughout the rest of the spring session.

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s rank and file members absolutely do not want another budget crisis, so they will be pushing him to find a way to compromise, either with the governor and the Republican leaders or with that rump group of 2017 tax hike Republicans.

It’s also highly doubtful that Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker wants a half-year budget. Who wants to take office and then immediately face a daunting fiscal crisis? Madigan, after all, messes with every governor, Republican and Democrat, over the budget. It’s a situation to avoid at all costs. Besides, those rebel Republicans undoubtedly wouldn’t go along with such a scheme anyway. If you have the votes, then do the responsible thing (like they did last year) and pass a full-year budget.

Not to mention that a lot of other Republicans who voted with the governor last year would much rather have a deal than yet another fight that they likely cannot win.

From the beginning of Rauner’s term, Speaker Madigan did not want to make a move on a tax hike without the governor’s cooperation and/or without Republican votes to override him. He simply didn’t want the entire blame and after losing seats in the 2016 election Madigan didn’t have enough votes to override a veto on his own anyway.

The same will undoubtedly hold true this year. Why make any unilateral, partisan budgetary moves when Madigan can once again claim to be cooperating in a bipartisan manner? It’s not as if he cares about state budgets beyond whatever political advantages he can squeeze out of them. And another successful bipartisan defeat of Rauner would definitely be a “win.” In fact, that’s likely Madigan’s best-case scenario.

So, despite what you may have been reading or seeing or hearing during the spring break, the real heat is on Gov. Rauner and his two legislative leaders. The governor has a horrible job approval rating, just barely won his Republican primary and is now facing a billionaire Democrat in what sure looks like a national wave year for the Democratic Party.

Rauner really needs a win. He and his leaders will have to either negotiate in good faith, or they can just punt it to the other side, and the governor can veto the budget yet again and spin the results as best they can.

The budget is the final major test of Gov. Rauner’s first term. Whatever happens will set the tone for the rest of the year’s campaign. He can yet again claim impotence (“I’m not in charge”) by ceding control to the other side or he can finally become truly engaged in the task at hand.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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