The state legislative pay raise issue was a big reason why the Illinois Senate Democrats wanted to avoid another prolonged, bitter overtime session like last year and wrap things up by the May 31st deadline.
Yes, there was no stomach for another war like the all-out brawl of 2007, which pitted Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan against his fellow Democrats Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones. Rank and file legislators desperately wanted to avoid being trapped in Springfield, and they made that crystal clear to their leaders. But that pay raise was still a huge factor.
The Illinois Compensation Review Board submitted its pay increase recommendations on April 30th. Under state law both chambers had to vote to reject the proposal within 30 session days or the raises automatically took effect. The House voted to reject the board's recommendation almost immediately.
As in the past, the Senate Democrats decided that the House was a collection of wimps. They wanted their pay raise and Senate President Jones refused numerous entreaties to bring the proposal up for a floor vote. Jones also quickly canceled some session days in May.
Jones was, in reality, "banking" session days.
The last time the Compensation Review Board recommended pay hikes was 2006. The General Assembly adjourned in May that year and didn't return until November, so the Senate was able to postpone action on the report until after the November elections - because the "clock" on their 30 session days deadline didn't expire until then. The Senate never voted to reject the raises, so they automatically kicked in. The plan worked to perfection. It was almost completely politically painless.
However, a long, drawn-out overtime session this summer would have run out that 30-day clock pretty fast, so the hugely unpopular (with voters) pay raises would almost undoubtedly take effect before this November's election.
The Senate could have just voted to reject the raises during a summer overtime session, but the chamber's top Democratic leaders had obviously made the pay hikes a top priority. They went out of their way to publicly skewer dissident rank and file members like Sen. Susan Garrett who have demanded that they forgo the pay bump. The attacks made it crystal clear that the pay raise is one of, if not the most important issue to the leadership.
The Senate Democrats are convinced that the second national Republican meltdown in two years combined with a Barack Obama presidential candidacy will insulate their members from voter retaliation, even though voters are beyond angry. An "Ask Illinois" poll taken last month showed that more voters believe George Ryan would do a better job running the state than Rod Blagojevich. 52 percent picked the imprisoned former governor, while 48 percent chose Blagojevich. The mind boggles.
You might think that the antics of the Senate Democratic leadership during the failure of the recall issue, piled on top of the pay raise debacle, added to their staunch support of a governor who is currently losing a public opinion battle to a federal prisoner would give them pause. But the leadership showed no fear, at least not in public.
If that pay raise clock had started clicking loudly during yet another spectacularly disastrous summer overtime session, rank and file Senate Democrats would have freaked out in a very big way. Barack Obama or no Barack Obama, they'd have been absolutely pummeled by their constituents and the press. The pay raise would probably have to be rejected under that scenario, which wouldn't make the Senate's leaders happy at all.
So, the best way for the Senate Democrats to make sure they got their pay raises was to forge a quick budget resolution with the House, which would allow them to get out of town.
If Gov. Blagojevich decides the budget is no good, and/or wants the General Assembly to return to town to deal with the capital construction plan this summer, Senate President Jones will have to demand that the governor not call them into repeated special sessions and instead allow the legislative leaders to get together to hash things out amongst themselves without chewing up precious session days. The governor should be expected to go along with Senate President Jones, his only remaining ally, but this is Rod "erratic" Blagojevich we're talking about.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.