SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative leaders held a rare sit-down meeting Tuesday on the elusive Illinois budget, a summit where perhaps the biggest breakthrough was an agreement to talk again — even as soon as next week.
The Republican executive hosted the four leaders of the Democratic-led General Assembly during the meeting, which was originally suggested by good-government groups. It was partially televised to give the public a glimpse of the first time since May the top leaders had met in person to discuss the budget, which should have taken effect on July 1.
Asked when he emerged from the private session what he considered progress, Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said, "The fact that there was a meeting."
The first-year governor and lawmakers stuck mostly to the script they've followed throughout the impasse, now in its sixth month.
Rauner wants a far-reaching overhaul to the business climate to spur economic growth and curb union power before talking dollars and cents. Pro-labor Democrats say the changes he wants would damage the middle class.
Even without a fiscal framework, Illinois is spending money at a rate that far outstrips expected revenue, building a deficit that will be added to billions of dollars of debt that has been accumulating for decades. There's too little revenue to cover ongoing expenses; too much borrowing, which continues; a ballooning hole in state pension programs and a mountain of unpaid bills.
"This has been going on for decades," Rauner said after each legislative leader gave opening remarks. "This is not new, and if we don't take on the structural causes of those problem, if all we do is raise taxes and make a couple of modest cuts, we'll still chase our tail."
Democrats continue to rail against Rauner's agenda — restrictions on payouts under workers' compensation, a system that underwent reform in 2011; limits on the way liability lawsuits can be conducted; a property tax freeze that gives local governments freedom to control spending by limiting collective bargaining by labor unions.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has never wavered from his position that Rauner's proposals on workers' compensation and curbs on unions are "extreme" and that a budget resolution will result from "moderation."
"Where the implementation of those ideas would reduce wages and the standard of living and send injured workers to welfare and to the emergency room, I view that as extreme," said Madigan, adding that continuing to advocate those positions doesn't "help the resolution of the problem."
Madigan was unmoved when told that his Republican counterpart said flatly there will be no budget without endorsement of at least some of Rauner's agenda.
"The governor was not elected to sit on the sidelines and let the status quo continue," said House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. "It's going to be a very fluid process. But make no bones about it, there has to be meaningful reform."
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