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Thursday, March 3, 2011 04:20 am

Madigan’s new idea: Let members have a say

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Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan
After decades of dominating every tiny aspect of life in his legislative chamber, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan now appears to want his members to grow up a little and do some things for themselves.

One of the first steps in that process to adulthood is handing more power to the House’s five appropriations committees and the House Revenue Committee.

The approp committees have been toothless kittens for decades. They listen to a parade of agency directors outline their upcoming budget requests and press them about jobs for various constituencies, minority and otherwise. Occasionally, an appropriations chairperson will briefly have a seat at the bargaining table when the governor and the leaders sit down to talk turkey. But, for the most part, they’ve been cut out of the process. That’s especially been the case the past two years when the General Assembly has sent “lump sum” appropriations to the governor in order to avoid cuts.

But Illinois’ new “Budgeting for Results” law has given Madigan an opportunity to hand off a bit of power to see how his members deal with it. The law requires that the state first determine how much revenue is available to spend before deciding how to spend it. Then, agencies have to come up with realistic benchmarks to prove that their programs are performing up to par.

So, Madigan has introduced a House resolution to establish how much cash will be available to the state from every possible revenue source. Determining the actual anticipated revenues will be the job of the House Revenue Committee, which will begin holding hearings on the matter this week.

Once the resolution is passed, each of the five appropriations committees will be given a spending limit. They will then decide how the state cash is divvied up agency by agency. If they exceed the limit, or discover they don’t have enough money to go around, they’ll have to make cuts.

To be sure, Madigan’s staff will have a lot to do with this process. And dealing with how the Senate determines its own revenue and spending process hasn’t yet been figured out. The two chambers could hold a conference committee (which we haven’t seen in years), or the “budgeteers” (trusted appropriations lieutenants) could step in and negotiate, or Madigan and the other leaders could just take it from there. But considering that over half the chamber sits on a House appropriations committee, it will at the very least be a needed eye-opening experience for these people, who have so often been shielded from making any hard choices.

Madigan, by the way, has also informed standing committee chairmen that they need to learn to say “No” a lot more often. Usually, the committees will approve legislation as a courtesy, or send bills to the floor even though the measures may still need a lot of work. But Madigan is reportedly concerned about the large number of bills introduced this year and wants the chairmen to start weeding them out. In the past, Madigan has imposed limits to the number of bills his members could advance. Now, though, he wants members to try to take more responsibility for themselves.

To an outsider, this story probably looks pretty silly. Of course legislators should be more responsible. But those of us who’ve watched the House over the years know how much they’ve been spoiled by a leader who has taken it upon himself to do everything for them.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Illinois’ revenue streams crashed with the economy. The General Assembly was faced with the prospect of approving a budget with less money than the year before. Madigan told Republican Gov. George Ryan and Republican Senate President Pate Philip that his chamber was full of people who wanted to keep spending freely. So, they devised a scheme to pass a bloated budget and then Ryan would either reduce or delete spending items. The House would vote to override the cuts, then the Senate would vote to accept and everybody would be happy.

Now, though, Madigan may be thinking of what might happen when he’s not around to protect his members from reality. Nobody will ever again have the immense power and sway over the process that he’s had. The question, however, is after three decades of pampering his mushrooms, how long will it take to move his members into adulthood?

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