Jim Dey: Our leaders are turning bad into worse

Jim Dey: Our leaders are turning bad into worse

It's always darkest — just before things get even worse.

That's supposed to be a joke, a foray into gallows humor that is a takeoff on those optimists who predict happy endings in the midst of thoroughgoing disaster.

But it is just a joke. So someone needs to tell Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders Michael Madigan and John Cullerton not to take it seriously or literally because they seem determined to make this state's horrible budget situation even worse.

Those who have been paying attention know that Illinois hasn't had a full-year budget in place since June 2015. That's when Rauner vetoed the Democrats' deficit-ridden deficit, rejecting House Speaker Madigan's call for tax hikes to bring it into balance.

Negotiations began in an effort by Rauner and Madigan to reach an agreement both sides could live with. But no deal on the state's 2015-16 budget was ever reached.

The same thing happened with the 2016-17 budget, which was supposed to take effect on July 1. This time the General Assembly didn't even pass a budget for Rauner to veto.

All both sides could do to make sure K-12 school opened was work out an agreement on a temporary budget that will expire Dec. 31. After that date, schools will remain open but budget confusion will spill across the state.

Up until Thursday, Rauner and Democratic leaders were at least talking while going nowhere. But they cancelled a scheduled get-together that day because now they can't agree on which side should submit a budget proposal.

Senate President Cullerton insists it's the governor's job to put a budget plan to him, complete with proposed tax increases, on the table first, even though he asserts that "it's not a matter of who's going first."

At the same time, Rauner contends it's the Legislature's job to present him with a budget plan.

What seems to be at play, however, is 2018 gubernatorial politics. Shocking, eh?

But the game is afoot. Christopher Kennedy, the former University of Illinois board chairman and the son of assassinated presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, is laying the groundwork to run for the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination.

"I'm in," Kennedy was quoted as telling supporters this week.

At the same time, Chicago billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzer also is making noises about seeking the Democrats' gubernatorial nomination.

Kennedy against Pritzker followed by the winner taking on Rauner would be a lavishly financed political extravaganza.

But that's at least a year away. In the meantime, Illinois' ship of state is sinking, and ordinary people are getting hurt as the budget battle plays out.

Instead of finding ways to make a deal, the parties are trying to figure out ways to undermine the chances of making a deal.

For example, Gov. Rauner has been negotiating with members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for months now. Recently, he won a ruling from the state's labor board that the talks have reached an impasse, a finding that allows him to unilaterally implement his last contract offer.

Now Madigan and Cullerton are insisting that the governor's apparently closed negotiations with AFSCME become a part of the budget talks. At the same time, Gov. Rauner is demanding that Democrats accept legislative term limits, part of his so-called "turnaround agenda," as part of the budget agreement.

Perhaps popular with certain constituencies, both are deal-breakers that will become part of a overall budget agreement when pigs fly.

The outgoing Legislature is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 9, just prior to the new legislators taking office. That's nine days after the current temporary budget deal expires.

Those aren't just dates on the calendar. Time is money. Each day that passes without both sides taking meaningful steps to pass a budget and legislation that helps boost the state's economy will make it more expensive for Illinoisans to dig them out of their current financial hole.

That's assuming, of course, that it's even possible to dig out of the budget hole.

Illinois' total public pension underfunding has increased to $130 billion, up from $111 billion a year ago. The state's unpaid bills have climbed to more than $10 billion and are estimated to approach $30 billion in a couple years unless changes are made.

Because Illinois has no budget, it's continues to spend billions more than it's taking in, continuing a practice that's been in place for more than 20 years.

So things not only can get worse, they are getting worse. That light at the end of the tunnel is really an oncoming train.

Jim Dey can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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