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Thursday, May 17, 2012 12:08 am

Cullerton may end legislative session May 31

Senate President John Cullerton has been telling some of his members for weeks that he was resigned to an overtime session. The General Assembly likely wouldn’t be able to adjourn by the scheduled May 31 deadline, he said. There was just no getting around it, so people should just accept that fact and move forward.

But not long ago, Cullerton reportedly came to the conclusion that if the spring session did go into overtime, then the Republicans would likely keep everyone bottled up in Springfield all summer long. So, now his focus is on getting everybody out of town by the end of May.

May 31 is an important deadline because all bills voted on after that date will require an extraordinary majority of three-fifths to pass. That means no budget can be approved, no Medicaid solution can be found, no pension systems can be reformed without three-fifths super-majorities

The Democrats control both legislative chambers, but they don’t have three-fifths. They’re seven votes shy in the House and one vote short in the Senate. One vote may not seem like a lot, but the partisanship can sometimes get so intense in the General Assembly these days that one vote might as well be 100.

Cullerton has been hoping for a bipartisan settlement on those three gut-wrenching issues facing the Statehouse: Medicaid, pensions and the budget. And even though the Republicans deny it, Cullerton has  come to the conclusion that the GOP is slow-walking everything and suspects that the Republicans want to push the session into overtime to create as much political chaos as possible.

The majority party always takes the blame for overtime sessions, so tying up vulnerable Democratic incumbents in an unpopular and chaotic overtime session would further damage the party’s image and prevent members from walking precincts and going to events back home. 

So, when I asked Cullerton about a Senate Republican demand that the state budget be cut far more than a bipartisan agreement made in the House, he shot back, “It’s just an excuse to vote ‘No.’”

The House approved that agreement, which limited state operational spending to $800 million below the revenue forecast, by a lopsided 91-16 back in late March, but the Senate Republicans want that spending limit lowered by another $1.4 billion.

Republican “budgeteer” state Sen. Matt Murphy picked up sponsorship of the House spending cap resolution on March 30, the day it passed the other chamber. But Murphy has refused to call the measure for a vote in the committee, including last week when he was purposely singled out in the Senate Executive Committee. Chairman Don Harmon asked Murphy whether he was prepared to move the resolution. Murphy’s umpteenth refusal prompted Democrats to demand that the Republicans “move their other budget recommendations in a bill.”

The fight over the House spending resolution is one of the most important pieces of evidence that President Cullerton has to “prove” that the Republicans want to force an overtime session by slow-walking all the big stuff until after May 31.

The Democrats don’t have enough votes to pass that big stuff on their own right now, when bills “only” require simple majorities. Steep budget cuts, slashing Medicaid and whacking union members’ pensions are just not appealing to most Democrats. So they need the Republicans on everything.

Sen. Murphy admitted last week that his caucus knows the Democrats can’t pass a budget by themselves, so the Republicans are using their leverage to maximum advantage in order to force more spending cuts. Murphy also refused to lay out any significant budget proposals of his own, saying they should be negotiated.

Murphy said the proposed $2.4 billion in cuts would put the state on track to balance the budget by the time the temporary income tax increase expires.

“Let’s get it all over with now,” Murphy explained, rightly saying that the spending levels proposed by the House will still require even more painful cuts next year. He also pointed out that major budget cuts now might create a huge controversy that Democrats could use to justify making the tax hike permanent if they wanted.

But Cullerton and the Democrats maintain that the Republicans just want to create chaos with a long and nasty overtime session that they can exploit for partisan advantage this November.

Both sides are probably right. That gives me no comfort at all.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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