Who really deserves blame in Illinois’ budget impasse?

Heather Weiner

Heather Weiner is formerly the Illinois Policy’s Government Affairs Staff Attorney.

Heather Weiner
July 9, 2015

Who really deserves blame in Illinois’ budget impasse?

If nothing is getting done in the Capitol, voters should look first to those most capable of taking swift action: Madigan and his Democrat supermajority.

Illinois’ budget battle has consisted largely of more than a month of political posturing, with no indication that the state is any closer to a truly balanced budget. Each turn has brought a new round of blame from the various players, leaving all parties involved looking responsible for the current situation: but who’s truly to blame for the state’s budget crisis?

Gov. Bruce Rauner blamed House Speaker Mike Madigan for focusing solely on protecting his own power and blamed those in the Illinois General Assembly for passing an unconstitutional budget that the governor could not sign into law. The Speaker blamed Rauner for holding out for allegedly nonbudgetary reforms before signing a budget. The House Democrats stood on the floor of the General Assembly on July 1 and blamed the governor’s total veto of appropriations bills, with state Rep. Ann Williams telling Republicans: “I’ve got good news for you. You now have the executive branch… you can use the governor’s executive authority to do line item vetoes and reduction vetoes … How about using your power to make the budget you see fit … instead of complaining …?”

Some are more to blame than others, however.

Sure, The governor technically had options other than an outright veto of the appropriations package politicians sent to his desk. Those options, however, aren’t a magic wand to “make the budget” he sees fit, as these Democrats have claimed. According to the Illinois constitution, the governor could have used different types of vetoes to nix various portions of the appropriations bills and sent those recommendations back to the General Assembly. The General Assembly could override them or accept them.

But as Rauner indicated in a July 8 press conference, going line by line to fix a $4 billion budget gap doesn’t make sense. A deficit this deep requires fundamental rethinking, not tweaks here and there.

Furthermore, some legislators recognized that the blame being put on the governor’s veto choices may be misplaced. State Rep. Margo McDermed noted that these budget determinations are more the job of the legislature than the governor: “One of the things I’ve heard…over and over is that it’s ok to let the governor do our job, and that he can use his amendatory veto and that he can make our mistakes and our unconstitutional actions ok. I came here to do my job as a representative … So rather than doing our job, we’re kicking it upstairs. Putting the blame on somebody else, putting the burden on somebody else to do our job.”

While Democrats were discussing at length the power Rauner had to resolve his problems with the appropriations bills, they neglected to discuss a much more significant bastion of power: namely, Madigan and the supermajority he controls in the Illinois House of Representatives.

An override of a governor’s veto requires 71 votes in the House, exactly the number of representatives Madigan controls. If the Democrats truly believe that their budget is necessary and reasonable for the districts they represent, they can act on it. If the Speaker truly wants this all to be over, he can rally his troops to override anything the governor does or asks for.

But as the governor noted, if Madigan and his caucus want to spend $4 billion more than what the state collects in tax revenues from taxpayers, they will have to pass a tax hike – and take the blame for that decision.

In the meantime, if nothing is getting done in the Capitol, voters should look first to those most capable of taking swift action.

Madigan’s caucus can do whatever he wants; so, as Rauner stated, “Speaker Madigan needs to make a decision.” If the Speaker doesn’t want to take the blame on cuts or a tax hike, he at least should take the blame on the mess of a stalemate for which he is ultimately responsible.

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