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Thursday, April 14, 2016 12:28 am

The GOP attempt to look reasonable

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Gov. Bruce Rauner has hit a brick wall attempting to convince House Speaker Michael Madigan to come to the negotiating table to talk about ending the long governmental impasse, and then working out a budget deal. So, after holding numerous public appearances to demand a sit-down, Rauner shifted gears last week when his two Republican legislative leaders trotted out a new spending plan to provide $1.3 billion to fund human services and other programs.

The proposal would partly be funded with some pension reforms which Republicans claim will save $780 million. The reforms include pushing off pension costs to local schools and to higher education institutions for salaries above $180,000 a year and for some accounting changes. But there are relatively few employees making over $180K a year, and the $780 million is about a third of the state’s annual “normal costs” for pensions, so it seems somewhat difficult to believe that these savings are actually as high as billed.

And even if the money is real, the $1.3 billion GOP proposal is significantly smaller than either appropriations bill passed by the majority parties. The Senate Democrats’ spending plan was pegged at about $3.8 billion, with half of that ($1.9 billion) going to social services.

Still, the bill could very well generate some interest among rank-and-file Democrats worried about the implosion of the state’s social safety net as a possible next step in the negotiating process. For instance, the legislation appropriates over $10 million for the Adult Redeploy program, which diverts nonviolent offenders from prison terms. That money would come from the general revenue fund, but the legislation also uses money from special state funds to pay for programs popular with Democrats that aren’t currently being funded by the state, like homeless youth services.

By far, however, the most intriguing aspect of the Republican bill is what’s not in it – at least not yet. None of Gov. Rauner’s usual anti-union “poison pills” are attached. The governor has demanded the passage of several reforms as a precondition to talking about the budget, but none of those are overtly attached to this new Republican proposal.

The GOP legislation also gives the governor some spending transfer authority within the budget, but it appears to be much more limited than earlier demands for near dictatorial control over moving around just about every state dollar as he saw fit.

And while the GOP appropriations bill may not actually be fully funded by its pension component, it certainly has more funding behind it than either Democratic plan out there right now. And still more funding could be found by using part of the Democrats’ proposal, which includes forgiving about $450 million in loans from special state funds (an idea that the governor had previously said he could probably live with).

The idea, it appears, is to present a far more “reasonable” GOP face than in the recent past – and put Madigan on defense both for hiding behind his incessant political games and for refusing to come to the bargaining table and allowing the state to crash and burn while waiting for the governor to cave.

An official close to Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last week that his boss and Gov. Rauner have regularly spoken with each other despite all the harsh public back-and-forth sniping between the two men. The governor, he said, claims that he wants to make a deal.

But Speaker Madigan just doesn’t believe that private talks with the governor will work because they obviously haven’t borne fruit since this crisis began in late May of last year when the Democrats rammed through a hugely unbalanced budget which was then almost completely vetoed by Rauner.

Look, I totally get the lack of trust the Democrats have for this governor. He has broken confidences, broken his word and attempted to break their, um, stones by hurling insults for months. I also fully appreciate the tension that has built up on both sides during the past 14 months or so.

But it’s not like anybody’s doing anything else while we all wait around for Armageddon Day. If private negotiations are off the table, then something else has to happen.

Private negotiations are obviously preferable to public negotiations, but private negotiations are off the table right now because Madigan says so (and he has his reasons, some better than others). And public negotiations are better than no negotiations at all. And since public negotiations are what we’ve likely been seeing lately, we’ll have to take what we can get.

Hopefully we’ll see a counteroffer from the Democrats soon.

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

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