Is Illinois ready to embrace a new approach to governing?
Now that the king — former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan — has been dethroned, there’s considerable speculation about this state’s future.
Just for starters, it’s no surprise Madigan’s successor, Chicago-area state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, is enjoying a honeymoon period in which many people have adopted a hopeful attitude about the leadership he’ll bring to the General Assembly.
Welch is entitled to a chance to prove himself. But let’s not get too carried away.
For starters, Welch is a Madigan protege. Second, his name was among those on Madigan’s 2019 clout list of those seeking patronage jobs in the new Pritzker administration. Welch wanted Madigan to use his influence to get his wife and mother state jobs.
So meet the new boss, who might not be much different in many respects than the old boss.
Still, hope springs eternal, and so do recommendations for the policy changes needed to lift Illinois up from its current state of self-inflicted degradation.
The Chicago Tribune recently suggested three ways Welch can lead the state forward — spending restraint, honest budgeting and modification of House rules that open up the legislative process and permit members of both parties to participate.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank, came up with its own prescription for improvements.
It recommended real ethics and lobbying reforms, modifying Madigan’s restrictive legislative rules and stripping lawmakers of their current authority to draw — and gerrymander — legislative maps.
Generally speaking, those are sensible recommendations. But here’s the thing: As bad as some people thought Madigan was, he’s wasn’t the sole problem.
He maintained his iron grip on the House Democratic Caucus because, for the most part, he worked hard to keep them happy. Madigan protected them from political accountability on tough issues and mostly let them tax, spend and legislate as they wished.
Madigan cared most about maintaining his legislative majority and the power, perks and patronage that went with it. His obsession with patronage is at the root of his alleged role as power broker at the center of the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal.
He cared much, much more about maintaining his power than passing sound policies. That’s one reason why the state has for years been spending money it didn’t have.
How is that going to change now that Madigan is no longer running the House? It’s hard to imagine legislators will suddenly change their policy preferences or that party leaders will try to convince them to do so.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has made it crystal clear that he has vast social-policy plans he wants passed. As for balancing the state’s budgets, the governor prefers to rely on tax increases and/or federal bailouts.
He didn’t get the big tax hike he wanted because voters emphatically rejected Pritzker’s progressive-income-tax amendment in the November election.
But the federal bailout he covets became a distinct possibility when Joe Biden was elected president.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that the state’s elected leaders remain pretty much committed — whether Madigan is present or absent — to continuing to do in the future what they have done in the past.