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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009 02:27 pm

Speaker Madigan likes to share the pain

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan

For years, reporters and pundits have said that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan preferred Republican governors because Madigan wanted to be the state’s most powerful Democrat.

There is some truth to that. Madigan hasn’t played well at all with the two Democratic governors whom he’s served under as speaker. He battled constantly with Rod Blagojevich, and he’s made Pat Quinn squirm time and time again, including holding a press conference during which he repeatedly castigated Quinn for “flip-flopping.”

But there was always much more going on than just Madigan’s desire to be the absolute top dog. As we’ve seen time and time again over the decades, Madigan prefers to share the pain of governing with the other party in order to deflect blame from his own party. It’s one way he’s held onto power for so long. And it’s tough to do that without a Republican governor.

A Republican governor can usually bring Republican legislative votes on to a bill that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Every income tax hike that’s ever passed was done under a Republican governor. Some of the biggest ever goodies for Chicago were nabbed because a Republican governor helped the Democrats bring GOP legislators onto the roll calls.

That all ended when Rod Blagojevich became the first Democratic governor elected in 26 years. Since then, we’ve had almost seven solid years of grinding gridlock.

This past year, for instance, Madigan said over and over that he wouldn’t advance important legislation without significant Republican votes, including tax increases and reforms to the pension systems to balance the state’s outrageous $11 billion budget deficit. The Senate Democrats passed a tax hike all by themselves, but Madigan refused to touch the issue without Republican votes, even though he had more than enough Democratic votes to pass a bill on his own.

Madigan is so politically cautious because he is so power hungry. By sharing the pain in a bipartisan manner, voters can’t totally blame Madigan’s majority party.  So, it’s highly doubtful that Madigan will ever budge on a hugely unpopular but desperately needed tax hike without GOP votes. Voters don’t care much about the deficit, but they would care — a lot — about any drastic measures to erase that deficit.

Perhaps the only way this will change is if a Republican governor is elected and decides that a tax hike is necessary. Then, some Republican legislators will feel an obligation to support their governor. A Republican governor will also have all the usual bags of goodies to cajole and pressure their members.

We saw a little bit of that during the spring session when two former Republican governors, Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, made calls to GOP members on the income tax hike plan. It didn’t work, mainly because neither of them have the power to do much of anything. But what we witnessed back then was an admission that these major issues won’t be advanced in the House without a bigtime Republican pulling strings behind the scenes.

A few years ago, I asked Madigan why he didn’t just find somebody to run against Blagojevich in the 2006 Democratic primary. Madigan replied the last time he did that (when he was a point person against the anti-Machine Democrat Dan Walker) it led to 26 years of uninterrupted Republican rule, implying that he’d rather have a “bad” Democrat as governor than a “good” Republican.

Some wonder whether Madigan will lay down next fall if the governor’s race looks winnable by the GOP and if the Republicans nominate a candidate who can “do business.”

I was, however, recently reminded by one of Madigan’s guys that the new legislative district maps have to be drawn during the next governor’s term. Madigan will want total control of that process in order to hold onto power, and he’ll need a cooperative, partisan governor to guarantee his control.

In other words, if a Democrat wins the governor’s race next year and Speaker Madigan doesn’t radically alter his governing style by actually doing something constructive with his majority no matter what the Republicans say, this horrific gridlock will continue unabated for another four disastrous years.

Wonderful news, eh?

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