Is another ugly state budget battle in the offing?
The month of May is just about here, a time when state legislators traditionally get serious about putting together a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Indeed, Democratic legislative leaders already have announced that they hope to wrap up the budget work by the end of the month.
But there is a major impediment standing in the way of meeting that goal — it's the political season, and politics almost always trump policy in Illinois.
If that's not enough of a concern, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan already has laid down a political marker by inviting Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to stand on the sidelines while "serious" people do the budget work.
The jibes and insults the two men toss each other's way are nothing new. Neither are fights over state spending.
Who can forget the long-standing, two-year budget battle between Madigan and Rauner that didn't end until last year when Madigan finally won a crushing victory over his hated rival.
Illinois doesn't need any more of that kind of dysfunction. But the budget signs are not encouraging.
For starters, Republicans so far have been unable to get Democrats to agree to an official revenue estimate around which to build the 2018-19 state spending plan.
That's alarming because the Illinois Constitution not only mandates legislators pass a balanced budget — something they have not done for nearly 20 years — but state law requires the House and Senate to pass a revenue estimate resolution that relies on forecasts by the nonpartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
COGFA is estimating revenues to be $37.6 billion in 2018-19. Forecasting revenue is not an exact science.
But Republican House Leader Jim Durkin makes a good point when he calls the estimate a good starting point "to work from."
Indeed, how can one put together an effective spending plan without a firm idea of available funds?
It can't, of course, be done. Perhaps that's why Illinois is deep in the throes of financial desperation after years and years of making one bad spending decision after another.
At least, that's the policy perspective. The political reality is that the state's chief executive always gets the blame for budget problems because he's the most visible elected official.
If Madigan is playing that game, look for budget negotiations to stall, and then, at the last minute, Madigan to pass his own budget and try to force it on a reluctant Rauner.
In that vein, two state legislators — Democratic State Sen. Tom Cullerton and Republican state Sen. Michael Connelly — last week jointly proposed a state constitutional amendment that would cap state spending. They said, however, that legislators also could agree to abide by a spending cap.
The two suggested an annual spending increase limited to 2.89 percent "for all of our budgets going forward." The percentage is derived from averaging the annual growth of per capita Gross Domestic Product over the preceding 10 years. Under the proposal, the cap could be lifted in times of emergency.
Other states have spending caps and are prospering under them. In contrast, Illinois leaders have over the years simply spent as if there is no tomorrow. Now that tomorrow has arrived with a vengeance, they show no sign of doing anything other than passing more tax increases to feed their spending habit.
The question surrounding the tax cap amendment, of course, is why members of the Illinois House and Senate, who have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for fiscal restraint, would suddenly embrace a proposal that would force fiscal restraint upon them.
Maybe because problems that are ignored don't go away, but just get worse. Ultimately, legislators may have no choice other than to stop themselves before they spend again. One way to minimize that potential problem for this upcoming year would be settling on how much money the legislators have to spend before deciding how much they're going to spend.