The News-Gazette: A Political Death Struggle While Illinois Burns

The News-Gazette

Recent years have seen forests felled and lakes of ink drained in order to bemoan, deplore and condemn the abysmal state of Illinois government.

Efforts to encourage, rebuke or shame our elected representatives into fixing this atrocious and unsustainable mess seem more futile as the problems grow more dire.

These problems, decades in the making, are now technically complex, extremely costly and politically difficult to solve.

But their origin is simple: Illinois politicians are hooked on spending faster than the economy grows and taxpayers can pay.

While both political parties bear major blame for these policy failures and fiscal irresponsibilities over the years, there's been one glaringly obvious common denominator throughout: Speaker Michael Madigan.

He's been effectively boss of the House for 32 of the past 34 years, and hence has wielded effective veto power over what bills reach the governor's desk.

Over that time governors of both parties — Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn — have struck political bargains with Madigan, achieving short-run benefits but kicking serious problems down the road. [For an overview of 1985-2015 see http://www.chicagobusiness.com/section/pensions]

All the while Madigan has, pythonlike, tightened his and his Democratic Party's grip on Illinois.

In 2011 Madigan engineered a temporary tax increase to, in Quinn's words, "pay our bills, get Illinois back on fiscal sound footing and make sure that our state has a strong economy." But despite the cumulative $25.7 billion in new revenue, Madigan badly broke the promises: the state's pension debt and backlog of bills grew as our economy came to be among the worst in the nation.

In November 2014 citizens elected Bruce Rauner governor over Quinn, based on Rauner's clear determination and potential to begin fixing Illinois' budget problems and to improve its economy by making needed reforms. In the ensuing lame-duck legislative session Madigan and Quinn had every opportunity to make permanent, and as high as they wanted, their expiring 2011 tax hike. Instead, playing politics, Madigan calculated the new governor could be pressured into knuckling under to "business as usual" and made to bear the political blame for the then-needed additional tax increase.

Except Rauner isn't buckling under Madigan's pressure. Rauner is requiring needed reforms in exchange for Madigan's tax hikes. The resulting impasse between them shows no sign of ending. In effect, the two are in a high stakes political death struggle which may last until November 2018 and even beyond.

Most commentators frame all this neutrally, assigning responsibility equally. But by electing Rauner the citizens spoke clearly that they wanted a serious change from business as usual. The roadblock is clearly Michael Madigan and, importantly, also those Democrat politicians and partisans whose continued support sustains Madigan's stranglehold over Illinois.

Future responsibility for breaking this logjam is rapidly extending outward throughout the citizenry who choose to still support Madigan's intransigence. This probably will not resolve until many thousands of voters begin demanding their representatives break out from under Madigan's thumb.

Meanwhile, Illinois burns.