Illinois no closer to budget deal after key legislative elections

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2016 4:59 PM

By Dave McKinney

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The two main antagonists in Illinois’ budgetary stalemate signaled no imminent spending deal on Wednesday, a day after a series of politically symbolic elections tilted in favor of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan over Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.

Madigan and Rauner have feuded since last summer over a fiscal 2016 spending plan, and Illinois has been without a fully-functioning operating budget since July, the longest stretch of fiscal futility in modern state history.

Candidates supported by Rauner in the two most expensive, highest-profile legislative primaries Tuesday faced defeat, and an insurgent Democrat backed by Republicans and other anti-Madigan forces failed spectacularly in Rauner's bid to unseat the House speaker on his political home turf in Chicago.

Madigan said those results should persuade Rauner to drop his effort to tie an anti-union, business-backed agenda to passage of a state budget and focus solely on “the most important issue at hand.”

“With the clear message sent by voters Tuesday, I am hopeful we can use this framework moving forward to implement a state budget and work together to get things accomplished for the people we serve,” Madigan said in a statement.

Several legislative races on Tuesday were regarded as proxy battles in the Madigan-Rauner standoff - none more so than the $6.2 million contest in Chicago to topple incumbent Democratic Representative Ken Dunkin, regarded by many Democrats as a political turncoat for missing a key labor vote opposed by Rauner and failing to vote to reverse human-services cuts made by the governor.

President Barack Obama, who had served in the Illinois Senate and then represented the state in the U.S. Senate before moving to the White House, made an almost unheard of endorsement in a state legislative race for Dunkin’s Democratic challenger, Juliana Stratton, which helped her score a convincing win, which a top Rauner aide sought to minimize.

“Even in a Democratic primary, the speaker needed to call in the president of the United States to defeat one legislator who dared to show a hint of independent thinking,” said Rauner spokesman Lance Trover, insisting that Tuesday was not a total political washout for the governor.

Trover cited “many races” Tuesday in which “special interests backed by Speaker Madigan failed to defeat Republican incumbents and candidates who support Governor Rauner’s call for structural reforms.”

Rauner sought to punish an incumbent Republican state senator, Sam McCann, from rural Illinois for bucking him on union-backed legislation the governor opposed. In that $4 million race, the second costliest statehouse race in the primary, Rauner personally campaigned with GOP challenger Bryce Benton, who lost to McCann handily.

“Perception is everything in politics, and to the political community Rauner came up on the short end of a fight with Madigan. So he looks weak and Madigan looks strong,” said David Yepsen, the head of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Still, Yepsen said, political dynamics that didn’t exist prior to Illinois’ primaries now could make a budget deal easier. Democratic lawmakers facing uncontested elections in the fall might cast Rauner-friendly votes more easily, and voters sent a message Tuesday to Rauner to retool his anti-union, business-backed agenda, Yepsen said.

But Rauner’s administration showed little willingness to do that in a Wednesday statement that needled Madigan for allowing the House to be on a month-long recess despite the ongoing budget stalemate.

“The primary elections are over and rather than issuing partisan press releases, the speaker needs to end his month-long vacation and begin working with the governor to enact a balanced budget alongside structural reforms that grow our economy,” Trover said.

(Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by Leslie Adler)