Expectations are low but maybe this is a start. The leaders will meet later this afternoon.

Story from today’s Chicago Tribune



Next up: Rauner, Madigan to meet
With no budget deal in sight, leadership panel called ‘theater’

By Monique Garcia and Kim Geiger Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner and the four House and Senate leaders are scheduled to gather Tuesday afternoon to talk about the budget for the first time in months, though the much-hyped confab is unlikely to end the stalemate that’s sent the state’s finances into further tailspin.

Indeed, both sides already have dismissed the meeting as political theater, but they’re going ahead with it anyway. It’s a nod to the ongoing battle for public perception as neither the new Republican governor nor the Democrats who control the legislature want to look like they are standing in the way of a deal as the state enters its sixth month without a full spending plan.

In the runup to the meeting, symbolism has outweighed substance — Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton couldn’t even agree on a format.

The governor had suggested each politician deliver a 10-minute opening statement that would be streamed live on the Internet before the meeting then continued behind closed doors. Rauner even recommended topics, suggesting Madigan should focus on taxes and revenue, while Cullerton should talk about overall spending levels, pension reform and Chicago’s financial woes.House GOP Leader Jim Durkin would touch on the key changes the governor wants before agreeing to raise taxes, while Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno should discuss ways to improve the job climate.

A Cullerton spokeswoman said the Senate president would not follow the governor’s outline, but he would thank the good government groups that prodded the leaders into the meeting.

“There is a real question people need to think about, and that is do they want political theater or do they want productive negotiations?” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. “While the president will take some time to express gratitude to the people who initiated the meeting, he’s much more inclined to encourage everyone to get to work to get this done.”

A Madigan spokesman said the speaker would make opening remarks, but the length and subject might diverge from Rauner’s wishes.   Regardless of the format, there’s little hope an agreement will be reached. For more than a month since the idea of the meeting was first floated, Rauner has publicly dismissed it as merely an exercise for the TV cameras.

“Whatever,” Rauner said of the meeting last month as he spoke to business leaders in Bloomington. “I don’t think it’s going to matter much.

“Talk about posturing,” he said. “What human being likes to negotiate in front of a TV camera and make a compromise on TV? People don’t do that.”

Those remarks came before Rauner proposed limiting press coverage of the meeting. But the sentiment is still shared across the aisle. Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat and Madigan’s top deputy, said she doesn’t expect any “dramatic breakthroughs.”

“The governor has been retreading and repeating his usual demands; I don’t know that’s the right way to start a discussion about the budget,” Currie said.

Still, there is the possibility a compromise could be reached in one funding area, specifically freeing up gas tax and 911 surcharge dollars the state normally sends to towns and cities to pay for public safety and other day-to-day operating expenses. Because the state has no budget, the money can’t be dispersed without legislative action. While House lawmakers last month approved a plan to release the money and an additional $1 billion to run the Illinois Lottery, Currie used a procedural move to keep the measure from moving to the Senate.

That hold on the bill underlines the distrust at the Capitol — Madigan was unwilling to send the bill to Cullerton in case Senate Democrats were willing to cut a deal with Rauner on the issue.

The governor initially opposed the bill but switched positions, saying he would support it if it also included more funding for things such as debt payments and salting and plowing of roads. Rauner billed the move as a compromise, although it also provided him political cover as some House Republicans were willing to vote for the Democratic plan in the face of pressure from suburban mayors to free up the funds. Madigan refused to amend the bill to include the extra spending, but talks are ongoing about possible changes or alternative legislation to free up the funds.

“That alone would be a step forward to how we figure this larger budget issue out,” Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh said.

Rauner and Democrats have been deadlocked over the budget as the first-year governor seeks to push through a broader political agenda that would scale back union rights and lower operating costs for businesses. Rauner has said he won’t talk about a tax increase to relieve the state’s crushing deficit unless he first gets his wish list.

Democrats counter that the GOP governor’s plans would dismantle the middle class and should be dealt with separately from the budget.   As the cash crunch has worsened over the months, the state has found creative but potentially costly ways to keep taxpayer dollars flowing. The Illinois Finance Authority is supposed to help arrange loans for farms, towns and hospitals, but agreed to lend the state $12 million to help pay for things such as 911 call centers, snowplow repair and food for prison inmates.

To free up cash last month, Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger put off a $560 million contribution to state employee retirement systems, sparking the largest-ever cash withdrawal from the funds as officials scrambled to make sure there was enough money on hand to pay retiree benefits. Munger’s office said Monday it will make the December pension payment.   In the meantime, the unpaid bill backlog has grown to $7 billion as state government continues to spend money at last year’s levels even though the state is set to bring in far less after a temporary income tax increase began rolling back in January. Munger’s office estimates the backlog will grow to $8.5 billion by year’s end.

Last week, analysts at Moody’s Investor Services warned that the bill backlog and rising unfunded pension liabilities could push the state’s credit rating — already the worst in the nation — even closer to junk status.

As the stalemate has progressed, government watchers have warned that the situation cannot continue without the state facing serious consequences down the road.

“What we need is for the state leaders, the legislative leaders and the governor to come to a consensus that they want to resolve the budget crisis,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation budget watchdog group.

“That doesn’t mean that either side is wrong in advocating for different policy decisions. … It just means that there’s an enormous financial cost to the state to have let (the deadline) come and go, and every month come and go after that without an operating budget.”

mcgarcia@tribpub.com   kgeiger@tribpub.com

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