Politics dominate State of the State

Politics dominate State of the State

It's hard to imagine a time when the people of Illinois needed an atmosphere of bipartisan problem-solving in Springfield more. But it's not going to happen.

One would have to be a cockeyed optimist to expect anything better than what took place Wednesday in Springfield, when Gov. Bruce Rauner presented his State of the State address to members of the General Assembly.

But even by the standards of political realism, it was depressing to watch Rauner deliver his plea for legislators to work together to fix the state's problems and adopt policies boosting the state's faltering economy.

Democrats, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, rejected out of hand most of what Rauner had to say.

Speaker Madigan urged Rauner to let the House and Senate sort out issues like the upcoming budget process. "For the good of our state, maybe it's better the governor continue sitting on the sidelines and pretend he is 'not in charge.' That way, serious leaders can continue working to move our state forward," Madigan said.

The veteran Chicago politician said that would ensure the Legislature "will continue working together in a bipartisan way to ensure our state moves forward."

Senate President Cullerton was less caustic than Madigan, but still scornful. He criticized Rauner for being critical of Democrats for blocking most of his legislative agenda.

"We've had three years of political attacks and then he suggests maybe we should start working together," Cullerton said. "I hope that he's being sincere, but I have to really question that."

Relations between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have been difficult in the past three years. This being an election year, they'll undoubtedly get worse as Madigan leads his party's efforts to reclaim the governor's mansion and win control of all three branches of government.

The undeniable political enmity led Democrats to jeer as Rauner listed political goals that include his plan to propose a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and restated his desire to see term limits imposed on state legislators.

Democrats have complained in the past that Rauner has not proposed balanced budgets, so they responded with laughter first and then an insincere standing ovation when he said he plans to do so.

That prompted Rauner to go off script with a jab of his own. "And I hope this year you guys will pass it instead of ignoring it," the governor responded.

Rauner also noted legislators were unenthusiastic when he pointed out that "80 percent of the state's voters want term limits.

"The other 20 percent, it seems, are seated in this chamber and in elected Illinois courts," he said.

Those remarks may well be the high point of the governor's interaction with General Assembly.

Over the past two years, Democrats ignored Rauner's spending proposals.

They wrote their own budgets that spent more money than the state takes in and passed a tax increase. In both cases, they relied on a handful of Republican votes to override Rauner vetoes after a long, painful political standoff over state spending.

It remains to be seen if another budget stalemate will occur this year. But neither the governor nor legislators want to appear to be obstructionists as they seek re-election.

Other than passing a budget, it's difficult to see legislators working with Rauner on anything of substance that might boost his re-election prospects.

At the same time, Speaker Madigan almost certainly will use his powerful position to pass legislation he hopes will draw Rauner vetoes that his party can use as ammunition on the campaign trail. Among those would be once again passing legislation mandating a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Gov. Rauner tried to put the best face on his record, noting that he signed school finance reform legislation that aims to get more state aid to schools that need it most and that he's pushed for legislation designed to help reduce the size of the state's prison population. He also called again for redistricting reform, something Speaker Madigan will never allow, and legislation that will make Illinois more economically competitive with rival Midwestern states.

For the people of Illinois, it was a bleak occasion, one emblematic of the state's sclerotic, hyperpartisan political process that comes at a time of maximum fiscal danger.

Politicians' priorities always have dominated policy-making in Illinois, particularly under Speaker Madigan's long tenure. If anything was clear after the latest State of the State address, it's that nothing has changed.

If Illinois ever is to take the steps necessary to rise from the ashes of disgrace and despair, it seems certain they will have to wait until after the November election.

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