Illinois budget fight shifts to November elections

After finishing another legislative session without agreeing on a budget, Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois' ruling Democrats began looking for other options Wednesday even as they focus on November and trying to convince voters the other side is to blame for the state's enormous fiscal mess.

Just hours after lawmakers adjourned their spring session, Rauner and fellow Republicans began touring the state, bashing Democrats.

But there's huge political risk for both sides leading up to the general election. As Senate President John Cullerton put it late Tuesday: "(Rauner) is in trouble, just like we're in trouble."

"We have universities that might close, social service providers that might close and schools that might not open," the Chicago Democrat said. "And we're all confronted with this right now."

Rauner on Wednesday started a two-day, campaign-style tour of Illinois, where he repeated his assessment from late Tuesday that the session was a "stunning failure." He went on to blame Democrats for the state's fiscal troubles — and not just this year's failure to pass a budget.

He took a shot at Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, his main political rival in the state's 11-month budget standoff, pointing to his decades-long rule as the reason for the state's $5 billion deficit and $111 billion pension debt.

"The tragic fact is Speaker Madigan and his Democrats have controlled the General Assembly for more than 30 years. Thirty years of total power. And in those 30 years we have the highest deficits, debt, unfunded pension liabilities in America," Rauner said during a stop at Vienna Correctional Center in Southern Illinois.

Democrats argue Rauner's yearlong insistence on passing pro-business legislation and curbing the power of unions — one of their strongest constituencies — is the reason for the historic impasse.

Madigan has repeatedly said Rauner is holding hostage schools, social service programs, and higher education institutions because of his "personal agenda."

The state's largest state employees union, which is locked in a bitter contract dispute with Rauner, criticized his visit to the prison, with a spokesman for the group saying in a statement he was "exploiting state worksites for his own political purposes."

"Gov. Rauner should focus on his own job — signing a budget without precondition — and leave state employees to do theirs," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31.

Rauner was joined in his tour by Harrisburg Mayor Dale Fowler, a Republican who's challenging Democratic state Sen. Gary Forby in November. The governor called on Forby and other area Democratic lawmakers to stand up to their party's leaders and help him pass a short-term budget fix and a school funding bill while he and lawmakers negotiate a full spending plan.

Several Republicans looking to unseat Democratic incumbents also held news conferences Wednesday to criticize lawmakers for the lack of progress on a budget. Three of those incumbents are in suburban Chicago districts where the GOP sees its best odds of picking up seats — and they'll have the financial backing of Rauner, a wealthy former venture capitalist.

Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to boost their numbers in each chamber to have solid supermajorities that will allow them to impose their will on the first-term governor.

Each party is gambling that voters' anger will damage the other side with public schools in danger of not receiving money this fall and the continued decimation of social service programs.

Illinois has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

But there are signs that neither side is willing to stomach possible school closures heading into the general election.

Cullerton and Madigan said they want to work with the governor to pass a temporary budget that allows the state to fund schools, social services, and colleges through the end of the year.

Madigan said House lawmakers will return to Springfield every Wednesday in June beginning next week, and Cullerton said he'll call his members back for votes once there is progress in negotiations.

Passing any legislation now is a heavy lift. Before this year's session concluded, lawmakers needed a simple majority to pass a budget. Now, they'll need three-fifths support from each chamber.

Rauner was already preparing to blame Democrats if they can't reach a deal.

"If they refuse and want to wait until after the general election, we need to hold them accountable for their decisions and what' they've done to us over time," he said Wednesday.


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