With less than a week until Friday's scheduled adjournment of the Legislature, there's been an interesting development among House Democrats who, because they have such a strong majority, essentially determine what will and won't get through the General Assembly.
Suddenly they've come to realize that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's budget spends a lot more money than the state is expected to take in next year. All we can say is, welcome to the real world.
Legislative Republicans, the minority that they are, have been warning that for two months. And last month, the Civic Federation of Chicago added its voice.
"At the same time as the budget fails to adequately fund the retirement systems, it proposes over $1 billion in increased spending from General Fund revenues," the group said. "The budget proposes as much as $261 million in new initiatives, many of which represent recurring costs that could expand dramatically in future years.'
Last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan finally signaled that he, too, believes that the Blagojevich budget is too rich for Illinois' vanilla tastes. Democratic budget negotiators apparently were told to use this year's budget as a base, and to add only new spending equal to the expected revenue growth. According to one estimate, that would mean only $200 million in new spending.
Fiscal responsibility may not be the only reason Madigan is urging House Democrats to trim the budget. He and Blagojevich are facing a minirevolt among some African-American and Hispanic lawmakers who want even more spending than the governor proposed, especially more money for public schools. But if Madigan argues that the state still faces financial difficulties – which it does – it makes it hard for any group to demand more money. Just ask the state's higher education community, which is grateful this year for its 1 percent budget increase.
What's most interesting about Madigan's apparent move toward a modicum of fiscal sanity is that it represents an offensive against Blagojevich's free-spending ways – millions here for universal preschool, millions there for a college tuition tax credit, millions here for stem cell research and millions there for more state-funded health care – and yet Madigan is co-chairman of the governor's re-election campaign. But that's a problem for Democrats to work out privately – or publicly, if they prefer.
In the meantime, Illinois taxpayers should hope that Madigan, if he is serious, prevails in this struggle. If not, Illinois moves closer and closer to forcing a tax increase that Blagojevich says he opposes.