Ill. governor, lawmakers set new record for futility

By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Forget the high fives. Put away the champagne. Illinois officials are about to set a new record, but it won’t be an occasion for celebration.

The record is for longest legislative overtime session, a result of bitter divisions among the governor and lawmakers over a new state budget.

When lawmakers meet Wednesday, the overtime session will be at 55 days and counting. The modern record of 54 days was set in 2004.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich introduced his budget proposal in March, and the Legislature’s spring session was supposed to end May 31. But opposition to Blagojevich’s proposals for tax increases and a major new health program produced a deadlock.

“This is no record to be proud of back home,” said Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago. “Democracy is not about five months of charades and dog-and-pony shows.”

Sandoval, who predicted the session will continue until state government is on the verge of a shutdown next month, blamed the stalemate on the governor and legislative leaders. He said they largely meet behind closed doors to negotiate the budget, shutting out rank-and-file lawmakers and their views.

So far, the overtime session is more of an inconvenience to lawmakers and their staff than a crisis for Illinoisans. That’s because officials passed a one-month budget to keep government operating in July.

But the spending authority ends in August, and few lawmakers seem interested in another budget extension. If the situation isn’t resolved by then, state employees will no longer be paid, parks and museums might close, payments to hospitals and nursing homes will halt.

Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete, says she’s frustrated by the gridlock. But she sees it as the result of genuine disagreements on important questions about how to raise and spend state money.

“People get mad that we’re still here, but I think our constituents back home would be even angrier if we just rolled over and played dead to get out of here. People are standing up and sticking to their guns on what’s important,” Halvorson said.

The disagreements are largely among three Chicago Democrats.

Blagojevich wants a program to guarantee everyone in Illinois has access to health insurance. Senate President Emil Jones wants more money for schools. House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to make sure the state’s shaky finances don’t fall apart.

But they can’t agree on where to come up with the money. House Democrats, along with the Republican minorities in each chamber, seem suspicious of the business taxes and gambling expansions proposed by Blagojevich and Jones. Blagojevich flatly rules out the income tax increase that interests many lawmakers.

Blagojevich is revising his health plan so that its cost could be covered solely by a tax on business payrolls, Halvorson said, and Senate Democrats haven’t given up on gambling expansion.

Other speculation has Madigan and Jones working together on an income tax increase that would have enough support to withstand a veto.

Whatever the final mix, Halvorson sees signs that key people are finally willing to bend.

“They need to all sit down, put all their personalities aside and play nice in the sandbox,” she said.