When Jim Edgar was governor, reporters covering his annual budget speech would approach Senate President Pate Philip as he descended afterward from the House Speaker’s podium to ask about Edgar’s proposals. Eventually, or even right away, we’d hear an emphatic “No!” from Pate, and then we’d pronounce a good chunk of the budget dead on arrival.
Times were simpler back then than they were last week after Gov. Pat Quinn finished his latest budget address. Quinn’s proposal “benefited” from a lack of major specifics on the big issues of the day — the exploding costs of Medicaid and the state pension system.
The only things left to attack were program cuts and facility closings (and Republicans who did so risked being labeled as false budget hawks) and the phony complaint that his budget called for higher spending (operating costs are falling by about $400 million, but total state spending is going up mainly because pension payments are rising by about $1 billion next fiscal year).
To compensate for the lack of specifics, Quinn alternated between a gravely warning tone (welcoming legislators to their “rendezvous with reality” on the twin crises of Medicaid and pension spending) and overtly offering to partner with members on finding solutions. Quinn also mixed in a bit of tough love, demanding an answer from his pension reform commission by mid-April and warning legislators that if the Medicaid issue isn’t resolved, they could plan on spending the summer in Springfield.
It wasn’t the best budget speech ever given, but it was surely Quinn’s best. He finally appears to be getting his arms around his job. We’ll see how he does in the coming days, weeks and months when he isn’t sticking to a prepared script, but there was a distinct sense in the building last week that things might not be so hopeless after all.
While criticizing Quinn’s lack of specifics and his tardiness in realizing the importance of getting the budget in order, House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) said he planned to again work with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) on the budget this spring. Sen. Matt Murphy, the Senate Republicans’ budget point person, offered many of the same criticisms as Cross but repeatedly claimed that his caucus did, indeed, attempt to work with the Democrats last year on budget cuts and would be willing to do the same this time around.
Both Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) pledged to work cooperatively with the other party, expressing a realization that these big issues are so difficult that there’s no way a partisan solution could possibly be crafted.
A thaw in the Statehouse’s longtime partisan rancor began last spring when Madigan realized he would need a bipartisan majority for a budget deal, not only to pass painful spending cuts but to also provide political cover for any budgetary gimmicks the House used. The Senate, meanwhile, began working cooperatively on workers’ compensation and education reforms.
But the House GOP’s budget work was ridiculed by their Senate counterparts, and the Senate GOP’s compromise on workers’ comp was derided by the House Republicans as inadequate. Only the education reforms received large bipartisan votes in both chambers.
The education reform working group therefore has become a template for the coming legislative session. Quinn has appointed working groups to tackle pensions and Medicaid in hopes of repeating last year’s success.
Politicians often work best in crisis situations. It’s a natural human tendency to rally together at such times. The governor did a good job last week of calmly and logically explaining the urgent need to work together for the benefit of the whole state.
There will be much shouting and moaning and protesting ahead, however, as significant cuts are made and these gut-wrenching problems are addressed. We’ll soon find out if Quinn has grown enough to hold it all together or whether the legislative leaders have to step in and do it for him.
Either way, Quinn is absolutely right that these problems need to be solved.