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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

A meeting that shouldn’t have been news

 In normal times, a 40-minute, late-April meeting to talk about the budget between a governor and the House Speaker would be so routine that it would likely go unnoticed by pretty much everyone under the Statehouse dome.

But these ain’t normal times.

A funded, full-year state budget has not passed during a spring legislative session since 2013, almost exactly four years ago. We’ve had partial-year or “stopgap” budgets ever since.

And House Speaker Michael Madigan hasn’t formally met with the governor since Dec. 6 of last year, about five months ago. Gov. Bruce Rauner announced at the time there would be no more such meetings until the Democrats were prepared to offer up a balanced budget with specific reforms – something that the governor hasn’t done since, either.

So, it was definitely news when Speaker Madigan requested a private, one-on-one sit-down with Gov. Rauner last week and then the two actually met.

Speaker Madigan issued a statement saying that he had urged the governor “to turn his focus to the budget.” Gov. Rauner’s office then claimed that Madigan “hinted that he may be willing to enact a truly balanced budget with changes that will help create jobs, properly fund our schools and lower property taxes.”

Did they really make progress?

Well, we all know that the governor is prone to exaggeration. He said repeatedly during the two-week spring break that the grand bargain negotiations were close to being wrapped up. He even claimed at one whistle stop that negotiations were going on between the two caucuses as he spoke, with another scheduled for the following day. None of that was true.

The House Speaker has his own issues. He doesn’t say much except to repeat what he’s been saying over and over for two years: The governor should focus on passing a budget. Madigan himself, meanwhile, has been completely focused on denying the governor any wins on Rauner’s terms. All wins must instead be on Madigan’s terms.

Madigan’s spokesman reacted to the governor’s statement by pointing to a bill the House passed last week to make workers’ compensation insurance “more affordable.” That bill (HB 2622), however, sets up a state-run workers’ comp insurance company to compete with existing private insurers. Trial lawyers and unions insist that the hundreds of workers’ comp insurers in Illinois are colluding to keep prices high. Hey, maybe such a thing could work. But creating a government insurance company is not exactly the sort of reform that our Milton Friedman-worshipping governor will ever accept as a “win.”

Even so, I choose, for the millionth time, to look at the bright side. At least they met. At least there was apparently a mention (no matter how brief) of non-budgetary reforms. At least they didn’t full-on whack each other after their meeting ended.

You gotta crawl before you can walk, so I’ll take it, no matter how pathetically tiny or how temporary that microscopic bit of progress may have been.

It’s been Madigan’s habit over the years to send the Senate a budget and then announce that the House has completed its work. He did it again last year and was ultimately stymied when the Senate refused to pass it.

But Madigan likely can’t even pass another budget bill out of his own chamber this year, mainly because a group of ten or so independent Democratic women in his caucus are sick and tired of these impasse games. They have enough votes to block him if they stick together.

And if the Senate ever does send Madigan its grand bargain, those ten House members and several more will demand that he take some action. This impasse is killing them back in their districts, along with the blame that the governor has so successfully pinned on Madigan with tens of millions of dollars. A deal would take an enormous amount of heat off Madigan’s members, and, by extension, him.

Rauner, for his part, is dangerously close to being permanently labeled as a failed governor. Everything he’s tried has failed. Sure, he can point to minor administrative successes, but he wasn’t elected to save a few bucks on data processing. And constantly awarding himself an “A” grade by pointing to these little administrative successes comes close to making him look dangerously separated from the reality that his state is rapidly going down the drain.

Both men have good reasons to find a way out of this mess. But they’re also the most stubborn men on the planet. Let’s hope they keep talking.

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

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