Who's to blame for the overtime legislative session?
It's a question you will probably hear a lot in the coming days, even weeks, as the factions jockey for position.
In case you haven't heard, the state budget is a mess. The four legislative leaders and the governor haven't been able to agree on much of anything. The regular session ended May 31 without a budget, and now any budget will need a three-fifths majority to pass.
The public never likes it when government leaders can't find a way to work together. But things could get really dangerous if the budget impasse continues into July and the state government shuts down. Everyone at the Statehouse wants to avoid blame in that nightmare scenario - this is, after all, an election year - so you'll be hearing a lot of spin from all sides about where you should direct your anger.
The truth is, everybody has some blame on their hands.
Governor Rod Blagojevich barely showed his face in Springfield until the final days of the spring session, which meant no budget negotiations until it was way too late. He refused to provide any details of the tax hikes he proposed in February until the last possible minute. When he did arrive at the Statehouse, he refused to negotiate on just about anything. It was his way or nothing, and he seemed to relish the idea of an overtime battle.
Speaker Madigan turned down two invitations to meet with the governor and the other legislative leaders in the last days of the session. The Speaker and the governor have not gotten along at all this year, and some believe Madigan wanted an overtime to sink the governor's budget and exact a little payback.
Senate President Emil Jones has exhibited more blatant partisanship than Springfield has seen since the early days of complete Republican control in 1995 (unfondly remembered at the Statehouse as the "Reign of Terror"). Jones has repeatedly jabbed the Republicans by doing things like threatening to close prisons in GOP districts. He also overreacted to Speaker Madigan's attempt to work with Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson to limit the governor's borrowing habits. And, lately, Jones has even lashed out at African-American House members, slamming them for sticking with Madigan instead of fighting with him for more education and Medicaid spending. Compromise is almost impossible in this poisoned atmosphere.
Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson and House GOP Leader Tom Cross refused to go along with the governor's tax hikes from the beginning, but neither man proposed workable alternatives. Now that we're in overtime, Watson and Cross will have to put votes on the final budget agreement. But Watson has threatened to only provide three votes, which would force Senate President Jones to put every one of his members on the final bill to reach the three-fifths super-majority. Again, this is not an atmosphere conducive to cooperation.
You might hear some talk about the plans that each side has presented. Don't believe it.
In the final minutes of the final day of the regularly scheduled session, Governor Blagojevich hurriedly slapped together a revision of his original budget and President Jones muscled it through the Senate, but it was a red ink-filled fantasy. The thing had a $700 million hole in it. Blagojevich and Jones then promptly accused the House and the Senate Republicans of not cooperating.
At about the same time, House Speaker Michael Madigan ran his own budget, which was supported by the Republicans. But that was also a fiction. Billed as a "no-growth" plan, several state agencies would have received more money than Blagojevich's budget, and Madigan's spending blueprint provided no new revenues to pay for anything.
Last week - nine days after the regular session ended - the four legislative leaders and the governor finally sat down to talk. Afterwards, it was all about blame-shifting.
Madigan said there was progress, but claimed Blagojevich still wanted to borrow and spend too much. Jones said the only progress was that Madigan finally showed up for a meeting. Watson said the governor should have held a serious negotiation session a month earlier.
What's desperately needed here is a lot more leadership and a lot less finger-pointing. Blaming one person or one caucus, or one faction, or one chamber, or one political party ignores reality. The truth is that everyone had a hand in this overtime session. And now everyone needs to start working on a solution.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.