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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 12:01 am

Big business and Madigan business

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman said last week that his boss’ statement opposing further corporate “handouts” basically “speaks for itself.” But does it?

Madigan invoked the populist gods last week as he called for an end to the “case-by-case system of introducing and debating legislation whenever a corporation is looking for free money from Illinois taxpayers.” Companies requesting the tax breaks, Madigan said, “Pay little to no corporate income tax to the state, contributing little or nothing to help fund the very services from which they benefit significantly.”

It would be much easier to believe Madigan had he not just last month pushed a bill over to the Illinois Senate which would give Univar a tax break to help the west coast corporation move its headquarters to Illinois. Not coincidentally, Univar has an existing facility just next door to Madigan’s House district. 

The Senate refused to pass the stand-alone Univar bill, opting instead to include the Univar break in a wider package benefiting OfficeMax and ADM. That bill cruised through the Senate, but Madigan didn’t allow it to be called in the House after the pension reform proposal was approved.

So, Madigan’s infamous transactional nature and the traditional tension between the two chambers both appear to be playing into this. 

Contrast Madigan’s statement about corporate “handouts” with Senate President John Cullerton’s staunch defense of his chamber’s passage of the tax breaks.

“We’re not giving any money to corporations, we’re bringing jobs to Illinois,” Cullerton said. “These specific bills that we passed, they are new jobs that are being added. So we’re not taking any money away from anybody or giving money to corporations, we’re adding jobs that aren’t here now.”

But even Cullerton whittled down the list of companies seeking government assistance. Zurich North America wanted a tax break to help it with its already announced headquarters move from one part of Schaumburg into another, but it was left out of the final deal. Suburban video game developer High Voltage Software has asked for assistance dealing with overseas competition, but it was also removed from the Senate’s package. 

Several other corporate execs have also quietly reached out to inquire about tax incentives, insiders say, so the relative trickle could become a raging flood very soon. Madigan appears to have wanted to stop this trend before it got out of hand. 

There is also some continuing tension between Madigan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who refused to publicly endorse a specific ADM tax break bill. Emanuel wants Decatur based ADM’s new “world headquarters” to be located in Chicago, but hizzoner never publicly requested the subsidy the company wants, and Madigan didn’t want his members taking heat for “corporate welfare” while Chicago’s mayor benefitted without cost.

This move also has a macro side. Madigan has never really cared much about the publicity he gets, but after he was publicly singled out by gay marriage proponents as the main impediment to the bill’s passage, Madigan helped push the legislation over the top and then took credit in an unusual post-vote press conference with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris.

Madigan then gave himself full credit for passage of the pension reform bill, claiming that the bill couldn’t have passed without his own leadership. His statement blatantly ignored the undeniable fact of Senate President Cullerton’s massive policy shift on pension reform, which was what really led to the bill’s success. More importantly though, the Speaker’s statement signaled yet again that he wanted praise for his accomplishments – something he’s never asked for in the past. And now this move designed to curry favor with the vast majority of voters.

After years of not caring, why does he care now? One obvious reason is the upcoming gubernatorial election. 

“Dealing with Madigan” has already become the most important issue in the Republican primary, with Bruce Rauner regularly denouncing Madigan and all four candidates claiming they’re the right guy to bring the most powerful Democrat in Illinois’ history to heel. 

It’s highly doubtful that Madigan’s PR ploy will work. The media and the Republican establishment have been blasting Madigan for over 30 years. A sustained attack like that simply cannot be effectively countered in a few months via media coverage alone.

Madigan, at the age of 71 with almost 43 years in the House and close to 29 years as Speaker, is also undoubtedly taking stock of his legacy and has apparently decided that he’d better get his, um, house in order. This state has suffered badly. And while he shouldn’t get all the blame, he has to know that he will anyway.  

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

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