As a potential budget compromise moved through the Illinois Senate last week, a funny thing happened. Senators were forced to vote. Green button or red button. Choose.
That was the idea behind Senate President John Cullerton's decision to put four bills up on the board, even though Republicans weren't ready. Many of GOP leader Christine Radogno's Republican members voted "present" as a form of protest against a controversial 12-bill package that, if passed, would go to the House.
But by week's end the action — inaction, really — led to one conclusion:
Illinois has the wrong legislature. Pols eager to curry favor with interest groups (and to get re-elected) created the Illinois debacle. Citizen-lawmakers who serve for a while and head home? Not so much in Illinois. The Capitol has too many careerists afraid to risk their cushy part-time jobs. They keep index fingers poised upward, testing the winds.
Note that Illinois has gone nearly two years without a full-year budget. The proposed package includes an income tax hike, a property tax freeze, more casino gambling, workers' compensation reform, government consolidation, legislative leader term limits and an appropriation for the current budget year, which would finally put a blueprint in place.
We've applauded the effort to break the impasse.
But by protesting the first four bills, Republicans caused the entire package to stumble. Most notably: With the help of several twitchy Democrats, they shot down the only meaningful pension-savings bill to reach the Senate floor in three years. It would have limited the pensionable salaries of teachers, university workers and lawmakers. State workers would be added later, once they settle their contract dispute with Gov. Bruce Rauner. The bill also would have stripped future lawmakers of receiving pensions.
But it failed 18-29 with 10 "present" votes and a couple of members not voting at all. Another day of theater in Springfield. Another day of wimpy votes.
There were a few risk-takers. Sen. Pat McGuire, a Democrat from union-heavy Joliet, voted for compromise. Organized labor, a key constituency in his district, lobbied heavily against the pension bill. But he voted for it anyway. Why?
"We need a budget," McGuire said. "Union members need it, too." To almost every question we asked about the bills McGuire answered "We need a budget."
The way he sees it, the impasse hurts union members and their families, too: Senior citizens who are losing half of their meal deliveries. Disabled children on waiting lists for services. Upheaval for those who rely on home health care as workers leave for better-paying jobs. Rank-and-file taxpayers, including union members, who pay for all the dysfunction via high interest rates on state debt. By some estimates, the state digs itself deeper into debt by $14 million a day.
The reasons to pass a budget, McGuire said, outweigh the reasons to keep objecting to it. Time's up. So he voted for all four compromise bills.
Not many of his colleagues did, including at least one — Sen. Mike Hastings, D-Tinley Park — who didn't vote for any of them. A real profile in courage.
Meanwhile, Republicans, pressured by conservative-leaning groups to kill the whole package because they say it doesn't go far enough, took the safe route. They helped vote the compromise bills down.
So while the 59 senators (and 118 House members) dawdle, companies decide not to further invest in dysfunctional Illinois. Credit agencies further downgrade state government. Residents poke "for sale" signs in their front yards.
And if you're looking for lawmakers who'll take unpopular votes and actually solve problems, try another state. Illinois has the wrong legislature.
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