So, what the heck was House Speaker Michael Madigan up to last week when he finally came out in support of an income tax increase and urged the governor to drop his opposition to the idea?
Madigan has always been coy about whether he really supports an income tax hike. Most people thought he probably did, and that he might somehow be maneuvering the legislative session in that direction. So, when he finally announced that he supported the increase, the whole Statehouse took notice.
On one level, it was a response to a letter sent by Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier in the week demanding that Madigan and the two Republican legislative leaders come up with an alternative revenue stream to fund education. It was also undoubtedly designed to get tongues wagging and freak out the governor, a staunch opponent of the tax hike.
It certainly did both of those. While the Statehouse buzzed with talk of Madigan's remarks, Gov. Blagojevich reportedly ranted about the income tax idea during a meeting of the legislative leaders, loudly taunting Madigan and others who attended "Go ahead and pass it," over and over again. Blagojevich was concerned enough about earlier revelations that Jones and Madigan had been privately talking about the budget and about Jones' agreement during that days' leaders meeting that he would work with Madigan to craft a new budget that he kept Jones in his office for several minutes after the other leaders had left.
Jones emerged from that long conversation with his session-long political ally to tell reporters that the Senate would give an income tax increase "strong consideration" if Madigan passed it out of the House. The Senate President claimed that he was against a "regressive" sales tax increase. "But I'm open to the income tax," Jones said. Jones had been a strong proponent of an income tax increase until earlier this year, when he decided to side with the governor's massive - and now deceased - tax on business.
While the place was still buzzing, Madigan eventually pointed to the governor's strong and often-stated opposition to an income tax hike as a major reason why the tax increase would probably never happen.
All that being said, with everything working against an income tax hike, and keeping in mind that I'm with those who think that it's highly unlikely if not impossible, if you were going to design a scenario that could produce an income tax increase, the situation that the General Assembly finds itself in right now is probably it. And, as we all know, Madigan is a crafty fellow, so he has to be watched closely.
An income tax hike couldn't have been accomplished during the regular legislative session. There just wasn't enough pressure on members. Overtime is different. It takes a three-fifths majority to pass anything, which is the same number of members required to override a veto. The governor thought that he could wear down the House by calling them into special sessions several days a week, but his in-your-face antics and anti-Madigan rhetoric have fired up and united House members like never before.
It's the Senate which is causing the real problems for the governor. Senate President Jones' health hasn't been all that great and the overtime session has been difficult for him. His members are fed up and want a deal, and they don't appreciate the governor's inability to move the ball forward.
Like Madigan, Jones is a crafty man and requires a close watch.
As a legislative leader, Jones naturally prizes negotiating skills, and his negotiating partner until now - the governor - is noticeably lacking in those abilities. Jones is looking for a way to end this interminable session (in what might possibly be his last term in office) and fulfill a career-long dream of "solving" the education funding situation once and for all. The governor, who is still committed to his own dream of universal health insurance, is getting in the way of Jones' aspirations.
While an income tax hike is still a very unlikely event, this same environment could help produce a Jones-Madigan agreement that might break the gridlock and produce a deal on other revenue ideas. And that's what Madigan's gambit might have been all about. Find common ground with someone (Jones) who is allied with a political rival (Blagojevich) and build on it.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com