Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

“He sounds like a Republican.”

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In Washington, Democrats stand for big government, social and health programs, and tough regulation of financial institutions, except when they don't. Republicans stand for the free market, defense spending, and tax cuts, except when they don't.  Over the past couple of weeks, there have been glaring examples of "when they don't."  A Democratic President overruled his own Food and Administration recommendation around emergency contraception for teenagers.  House Republicans refused to vote for extension of the payroll tax cut. But for the most part, a policy statement can be easily labeled as coming from the Democrats or Republicans.

Not so true in Springfield.

Illinois has a Democratic Governor, Senate President, Speaker of the House, Cook County President, and Mayor of the City of Chicago. It should be simple to pass "Democratic" legislation. But they are not singing from the same song sheet about how to solve Illinois's fiscal problems.  

Pension reform for government employees is one idea which pops into conversations about the state budget.  In 2010, Speaker Madigan walked across the State Capital's rotunda to meet with Senate Minority Leader Radogno to craft a pension reform bill, targeting future state employees. The Governor enthusiastically signed it.

Pension reform in 2012 is much more divisive.  Current public workers believe that the Illinois Constitution protects their pension agreements.  The Senate President himself has questioned if it is indeed legal to change pension benefits for those who were employed before January 2010. Many legislators are also reluctant to pass legislation which may reduce their own pension benefits.  Yet a group of Democratic legislators are pushing hard for changes. So, pension reform is not a predictably Republican (support) and Democratic (oppose) issue.

Another proposal would be to change the tax system so that those at the higher levels of income get taxed at a higher rate than those at the lower levels. Governor Quinn pushed to include an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor in legislation providing tax breaks for Sears and CME.  My guess would be that he would entertain the idea of constitutional amendment to allow change. But the word in the halls is that the Speaker wants no constitutional amendment. Two Democrats, two approaches to the idea of taxes and the budget deficit.

Getting to agreement on THE NUMBER.  THE NUMBER refers to the estimated revenue figure that determines the size of the budget pie. The pension share of the pie had grown significantly. So, even if THE NUMBER is the same as the previous year, funding for human services goes down.  Reducing THE NUMBER is viewed as a way of solving the budget deficit problem.

2011 was the first time in four decades that the General Assembly and the Governor identified and committed to pass a budget limited by THE NUMBER.  The Governor set THE NUMBER at $35.98 billion, the Senate, under President Cullerton, set it at $34,282 billion, and the House, under Speaker Madigan, set it at $33,173.5 billion.  The expectation of many legislators is that the Democratic leaders would compromise on THE NUMBER. This didn't happen. Instead, the Speaker won the discussion with his NUMBER.  "The Speaker is tougher on spending than any Republican Governor would have been," said some.

"He sounds like a Republican." That is what members of the audience in the Jewish Federation's Government Affairs Committee said last week when they listened to State Senator Dan Kotowksi talk about the "Budgeting for Results" initiative. His language of setting priorities, measuring performance, and investing funds sounded more like a corporate executive than a Democratic politician.

But in Illinois, a state dominated by Democratic leaders with much media attention on the large state budget deficit, I am starting to hear ideas from Democrats that would have been characterized as Republican in Washington. I wonder if, in states dominated by Republican leaders with media attention on severe unmet human need, the reverse may also become true?

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