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Thursday, March 1, 2012 10:35 pm

High marks for Quinn’s budget speech

Back when Jim Edgar was governor, reporters covering his annual budget speech would always approach Senate President Pate Philip as he descended from the House Speaker’s podium after Edgar’s address to ask about his fellow Republican’s proposals. Eventually, or even right away, we’d hear an emphatic “No!” from Pate and then we’d pronounce a good chunk of the budget dead on arrival.

Times were simpler back then than they were last week after Gov. Pat Quinn finished his latest budget address. Quinn’s proposal “benefited” from the lack of any major specifics on the big issues of the day: The exploding costs of Medicaid and pensions. The only things left to attack were program cuts and facility closures (and Republicans who did so risked being labeled as false budget hawks) and the phony complaint that spending was actually rising (overall operating expenditures are falling, but total state spending is going up mainly because pension payments are rising by about a billion dollars next fiscal year).

To compensate for the lack of specifics, Quinn alternated between a gravely warning tone (welcoming legislators to their “rendezvous with reality” on the twin crises of Medicaid and pension spending) and overtly offering to partner with members on finding solutions. Quinn also mixed in a bit of tough love, demanding an answer from his pension reform commission by mid-April and warning members that if the Medicaid issue isn’t truly resolved, they could plan on spending the summer in Springfield.

It wasn’t the best budget speech ever given in the House chambers, but it was surely Quinn’s best. He finally appears to be getting his arms around his job. We’ll see how he does in the coming days, weeks and months when he isn’t sticking to a prepared script, but there was a distinct sense in the building last week that things might not be so hopeless after all.

While offering criticisms for Quinn’s lack of specifics and for the governor’s tardiness in realizing the importance of getting the budget in order, House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he planned to once again work with House Speaker Michael Madigan on the budget this spring. Sen. Matt Murphy, the Senate Republicans’ budget point person, offered up many of the same criticisms as Cross, but repeatedly claimed that his caucus did, indeed, attempt to work with the Democrats last year on budget cuts and would be willing to do the same this time around if the Democrats let them. Both Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton pledged to work cooperatively with the other party, expressing a realization that these big issues are so difficult that there’s no way a partisan solution could possibly be crafted.

A thaw in the Statehouse’s longtime partisan rancor began last spring when Madigan realized he’d need a bipartisan majority for a budget deal, not only to pass painful spending cuts but to also provide political cover for any budgetary gimmicks the House used. The Senate, meanwhile, began working cooperatively on workers’ compensation and teaching reforms. But the House GOP’s budget work was ridiculed by their Senate counterparts, and the Senate GOP’s compromise on workers’ comp was derided by the House Republicans as inadequate. Only the education reforms received large bipartisan votes in both chambers.

The education reform working group has therefore become a template for the coming legislative session. Quinn has appointed working groups to tackle pensions and Medicaid in hopes of repeating last year’s success. However, those education meetings were unique in several ways, not least of which being chairwoman Sen. Kimberly Lightford’s quite significant skills at running meetings and at keeping a diverse and disparate group focused on outcomes. The people running the new working groups don’t have those same skills.

Politicians often work best in crisis situations. It’s a natural human tendency to rally together in times of severe strife. The governor did a good job last week of calmly and logically explaining the urgent need to work together for the benefit of the whole state. There will be much screaming and moaning and protesting ahead, however, as cuts are made and these gut-wrenching problems are addressed. We’ll soon find out if he has grown enough to hold it all together, or whether the leaders have to step in and do it for him. Either way, Quinn is absolutely right that these problems need to be solved.  

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