SPRINGFIELD — Sifting through what’s real and what’s theater in Springfield is always something of a game. The votes, the committee speeches, the impromptu hallway press conferences aren’t always what they seem. When it comes to the House, you have to inspect it all under a certain lens: If powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan really wants something to pass in his chamber, he gets it passed. That brings us to Gov. Pat Quinn’s controversial proposal to make the temporary income tax increase permanent while handing out a $500 property tax rebate.
Madigan invited Quinn to pitch the proposal to the House Democratic Caucus. Despite spending two hours with Democrats, Madigan later announced only 34 of 71 members were firm yes votes, far short of the 60 needed to pass the bill in the House — yet far more than the measly five votes the “doomsday budget” yielded. So one thing we know is Madigan’s caucus is more interested in getting government services funded than it is opposed to raising the income tax. Senate President John Cullerton said he has the votes to pass the income tax extension in his chamber.
Those working with Madigan and opposite him last week make similar observations. Madigan didn’t seem as if he was really breaking a sweat on building up a roll call on Quinn’s income tax hike. The will just doesn’t seem to be there.
And with Madigan, if there’s no will, there’s no way, right? “That’s almost always been the case,” Charles N. Wheeler III, professor of public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said of Madigan persuading his members on votes. “But you’d have to temper that with his No. 1 priority, which has been to elect Democrats to the Illinois House. If in his … judgment doing the income tax is going to jeopardize too many people, he’s going to let it go.” Forcing his members to take a vote supporting higher taxes as they face re-election in November puts them in a politically tenuous position to say the least. Quinn’s office warns that failing to maintain the tax rate will mean $875 million in cuts to Illinois schools, eliminating child care for 41,000 Illinois children and in-home caretakers for 21,000 seniors, and leaving 30,000 people with mental illnesses without the assistance they need. “Senior citizens in nursing homes around Illinois would be left vulnerable, with severe cuts to nursing home regulators. Hundreds of veterans would be evicted from our veterans’ homes. Fifty thousand fewer Illinois college students would be able to get college scholarships,” Quinn’s budget office said in a statement last week. All along in the background, you have Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner thumbing his nose at Quinn, blasting the tax hike and wasteful spending (while failing to offer up his own budget fix). There’s plenty of evidence that Madigan can get his way when he wants. Last session is the best example. With same-sex marriage and pension bills waiting in the wings, Madigan closed up shop for the summer, never even calling the same-sex marriage legislation for a vote. After a series of events, including his daughter dropping out of contention in the governor’s race and Quinn’s attention-grabbing move to yank lawmakers’ paychecks, Madigan called both measures for votes in a veto session. Both controversial. Both passed. This year, one theory emerging from Springfield is that Madigan wants to put off the income tax vote until January. That gives him a bargaining chip with whoever ends up in the governor’s mansion — Republican or Democrat. Another theory is Madigan is slowly bringing his members around to making the tax hike permanent before next week’s deadline. Wheeler predicted last week that before Madigan sent his members home for the Memorial Day break, they would first be presented with a gutted version of the budget. “They’ll do this before the weekend. Gut everything, then send them back home” to explain the looming cuts to voters, Wheeler said. They’ll go home and face voters at parades and pancake breakfasts and have to talk about the vote they had just taken. Even if they’re against it, the budget lays out drastic cuts to services. “All of these groups are going to go bonkers … I think that’s probably the strategy.” Insiders chalked up that “doomsday budget” proposal that tanked 5-107 on Friday, as merely an exercise in gauging roll calls. “You’ve got to be for something, folks,” said one of Madigan’s budgetary lieutenants, Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, before the vote. The spending plan Crespo and Madigan’s other budgetary leaders put together contained $1.4 billion in spending cuts, leaving elementary and secondary education with $570 million less than this year, $365 million less for human services and $255 million less in public safety. What has passed is a series of bills that call for $38 billion in spending but doesn’t include a way to pay for it. Maybe these are all baby steps toward finding some kind of grand fix, as always, in the waning days of session, with a June 1 deadline looming. And, as always, Madigan is holding the cards.