Get 'er done

Get 'er done

The legislative session that begins Wednesday really would be special if Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Legislature could reach a compromise agreement on a state budget.

Gov. Bruce Rauner made some news last week when he announced that he's calling a 10-day special session during which he hopes Republicans and Democrats can work out an acceptable budget deal.

"Republicans in the General Assembly have laid out a compromise budget plan that I can sign," Rauner said.

But the words were hardly out of the governor's mouth before Democrats, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan, were casting aspersions.

"It's clear that the onus is on the governor to show that he is finally serious about working in good faith to end the crisis he has manufactured," Madigan said.

Well, that's pretty rich. The Democratic-controlled Legislature didn't pass a budget for the current fiscal year, and it's yet to pass one for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. So Madigan's contention that the blame lies solely with Republican Rauner is considerably less than persuasive.

It's certainly true that the two sides have failed to reach the necessary compromise. But compromise, as has been noted ad nauseam by politicians and political commentators alike, requires two parties to give and take to reach a deal.

It seems clear, however, that the Republican's seven-bill package is unlikely to win Democratic support without changes. It was, no doubt, drafted in anticipation of further negotiations, and it bears a striking similarity to the proposals Senate Republicans gave to Senate Democrats in the hope of reaching the fabled "grand bargain."

In the end, Senate Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree. So Democrats went their own way, passing a $37.3 billion spending plan that includes $5.4 billion in state income and sales taxes hikes to bring the budget into balance.

Even though passed by his Democratic brethren in the Senate, Speaker Madigan's House, acting at his direction, took no budget action. The House simply ignored the Senate proposal, did not craft its own budget and pointed the finger of blame at Gov. Rauner.

There's no guarantee the House won't simply continue to refuse to act. Gov. Rauner has called special sessions for the 10 days leading up to July 1. But Madigan, as he has done in the past, can simply call the House into order and then call for its adjournment.

If that's what happens, Illinois will enter its third straight fiscal year on July 1 without a formal spending plan in space. That would be another one in a series of disasters that has the state's finances in critical condition.

This face-off is somewhat akin to the Civil War. It's reached a level of desperation and destruction no one imagined at the beginning.

Republicans and Democrats embarked on this fiscal showdown with the expectation that it would be resolved fairly quickly and no great harm done.

But a week without a budget turned into a month and then a month into a year. Now the state is on the verge of its third straight fiscal year without the governor and General Assembly meeting their most fundamental responsibility, passing a sound budget that addresses the state's failing fiscal status.

The differences between Gov. Rauner and Speaker Madigan are stark, but nothing that cannot be settled if both sides wish to settle them.

Speaker Madigan wants higher taxes and a status quo approach to governance. Gov. Rauner is willing to concede higher taxes but insists Illinois must change if it's ever again to thrive.

The subjects on which Rauner and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats negotiated included the budget, property tax relief, changes to workers' compensation, government consolidation, a new school funding formula, term limits for elected officials and revised pensions rules for new employees.

They're not only not that far apart but actually have reached near-agreement on pensions, government consolidation and education funding.

Differences remain. Democrats want a permanent state income tax increase to near 5 percent retroactive to Jan. 1, 2017. Republicans want the hike to expire after four years with an effective date of July 1.

Republicans also want a four-year property tax freeze to go with the proposed four-year income tax hike.

Those are among the differences that remain between legislative Republicans and Senate Democrats. Frankly, it's unclear where Speaker Madigan stands on most of this, even though it is clear he's unhappy with the budget package Senate President John Cullerton sent to him.

The details, of course, matter. But both sides must decide whether the resentments they feel toward each other will continue to outweigh their obligation as elected officials to the people of Illinois.

They can make this deal. It doesn't even have to take the entire 10 days of the planned special sessions. Neither side can force the other side to capitulate. If that continues to be the goal of one side or the other, more failure is directly ahead.

So what's it going to be — mutually assured destruction or compromise? The correct answer ought to be clear.

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