State political leaders open negotiations in fifth month without a budget

Julia Jacobs, City Editor

Illinois Budget Crisis

Top Illinois political leaders met Tuesday in Springfield for the first time since May to negotiate the five-month state budget impasse.

At the urging of political reform groups, Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders in a private session following public statements from each leader. The Republican governor continued to push for reform issues such as a statewide property tax freeze, while Democrats held that those proposals presented a barrier to agreeing on a budget.

“I don’t feel that we can simply cut our way out of the budget deficit problem,” House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said at the news conference. “The advocacy of these non-budget issues run contrary to the beliefs of Democrats and Republicans.”

Rauner, who is in his first year as governor, said the state’s piling debt is a decades-long problem that must be addressed with deeper structural reforms such as the property tax freeze. Evanston officials have said the proposed property tax freeze would put the city’s public library and schools — which rely heavily on property tax revenue — in tough financial straits.

“We have to grow our way out of our debt,” Rauner said. “If we deal with (property taxes), that will free up resources that will help our state budget.”

The governor also spoke in support of reforms such as redistricting to prevent elections that protect incumbent candidates and term limits that he said would reduce government conflict and corruption.

However, Madigan — one of Rauner’s key political opponents — held that the state needs new revenue to dig itself out of debt, pointing to his own proposal to increase taxes on millionaires as a potential source.

Offering support to the governor’s policy proposals, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Burr Ridge) said the state needs major changes to break the status quo of mounting debt.

“This never-ending tax and spending cycle has driven our state into a ditch,” Durkin said. “The middle class hasn’t just been rejected, but they’ve been kicked to the curb.”

Crediting Democrats with the state’s financial “mess,” Durkin also blamed the opposing party for refusing to compromise before Illinois’ fiscal year 2016 began in July.

However, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) countered that Durkin’s comments were “not helpful” to the negotiating process. Having not met for about seven months, Cullerton said the political leaders should pledge to continue more frequent meetings in an effort to reach a conclusion on the budget.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) agreed with the speakers from her party that the state requires reforms that would increase its economic competition with neighboring states, comparing the state’s financial crisis to a “rampant systemic infection.” Radogno highlighted a particular need for job growth — especially in manufacturing, which she said has lost more than 100,000 jobs in the past decade.

Despite dissent over the means of economic growth, one bipartisan agreement among the politicians was a need for speedy negotiations considering the state is nearing a half-year without a budget.

“It’s December, and I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait much longer,” Radogno said.

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