Rare interview shows Madigan rejecting term limits, downplaying power
House Speaker Mike Madigan ducks responsibility for Illinois' woes, spurns term limits, and minimizes his massive power in a new interview.
Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan will soon become the longest-serving state house speaker in modern U.S. history. His leadership has defined the Illinois General Assembly for more than three decades.
He is also the most powerful state house speaker in the country. No other state grants so much power to one legislative leader.
But according to Madigan, he’s not as powerful as everyone says he is. And he shouldn’t be blamed for Illinois’ problems. Among them: massive out-migration, the highest property taxes in the nation, the highest black unemployment rate in the nation and the weakest manufacturing employment climate in the region.
On May 9, the Illinois House speaker sat for a friendly half-hour interview with WGN Radio.
Here are the highlights:
Madigan describes his power as “alleged”
“Relative to my alleged power, [former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar] said even a weak governor has more power than the speaker does, OK?” the speaker said in the interview.
A comprehensive review of legislative rules in all 50 states show Madigan is the most powerful house speaker in the nation. In the more than three decades Madigan has served as the speaker, there is not a single piece of legislation that has become law without his blessing.
The appeal to former Gov. Jim Edgar is a weak attempt at masking Madigan’s unprecedented and oppressive influence over Illinois’ legislative process. Not to mention Edgar hasn’t always been so keen on downplaying the speaker’s outsized power.
Madigan says he’s protecting the middle class
Throughout the interview, Madigan positioned himself as a savior of Illinois’ middle class.
He repeated talking points on proposed reforms to Illinois’ workers’ compensation system, prevailing wage laws and collective bargaining, saying these would mean “lowering the wages of the middle class, lowering the standard of living for the middle class, and driving injured workers to welfare and to the emergency room.”
But Illinois’ experience during Madigan’s tenure reveals the truth about his disregard for the state’s middle class. The speaker’s failed policy agenda for the past three decades has brought pain for the many and perks for the few.
Consistently, Madigan confuses the middle class at large with state and local government employees. The families who do not rely on the government for their paychecks cannot keep up with rising property taxes, are seeing their neighbors leave in droves, and are short on good blue-collar job opportunities.
Taking care of the middle class means giving it a chance to grow with economic and governmental reforms that make all Illinoisans, not just those in the public sector, more prosperous.
Notably, Madigan dismissed the idea of a property tax freeze throughout the WGN interview, despite the fact that nearly 1 in 5 Illinois homeowners are deeply underwater on their mortgages. That’s the second-highest percentage in the nation.
And take the workers’ compensation system, where Madigan equates any reforms to an attack on working people. Today, that system is putting worker health at risk by allowing the practice of physician dispensing, where doctors can sell potentially dangerous drugs directly out of their offices to injured workers at big markups.
But the workers’ compensation system does not change because Madigan must deliver a return on investment. Trial lawyers and law firms are two of the largest bankrollers of the Madigan machine.
Meanwhile, manufacturers that employ middle-class Illinoisans are crushed under the weight of the highest workers’ compensation costs in the Midwest. And Illinois goes unmentioned in countless talks of expansion and investment in good manufacturing job opportunities.
Madigan says term limits are a bad idea
Surprise! A man who has been a state representative since 1971 doesn’t like term limits.
“I support term limits as administered by the voters,” he said in the WGN interview.
The problem is that Madigan’s refusal to cede control over political mapmaking means politicians pick their voters, not the other way around.
Nearly 4 out of 5 Illinoisans support term limits, according to polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
And according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Illinois is one of only 14 states with no form of term limits for state lawmakers and the following executive branch offices: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor general and comptroller.
Calls to pass any form of term limits through the General Assembly, until now, have fallen on deaf ears. State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, filed a constitutional amendment in 2015 to place term limits on Illinois lawmakers.
It never left Madigan’s Rules Committee.
Members of the Illinois Senate Jan. 11 passed a resolution that imposes term limits on leadership positions in their chamber.
But this resolution does not apply to the House, where Madigan was elected to his 17th term as speaker on the same day the Senate took action to put limits on leadership.
Madigan takes no blame for the state of the state
One wonders whether the plight of long-suffering Illinois families has offered any lessons to Madigan. Maybe given the results over the years, he would alter his policy priorities to adapt to the state of the state.
That remains to be seen.
Not once in the 30-minute interview did Madigan acknowledge that he has been a co-pilot on every major decision to come out of the Statehouse for 32 of the last 34 years.
Until that reckoning, the speaker’s legacy will be defined not by any brave choice to bring prosperity back to Illinois, but rather by power, privilege and politics.