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Thursday, May 7, 2015 12:01 am

Rauner’s term limit tango

The new legislative “working groups” designed to hammer out compromises on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” finally began meeting in secret last week. At least one of them got a bit heated.

A working group tasked with writing ethics legislation hit a brick wall right off the bat when it came time to discuss Rauner’s term limits constitutional amendment. Two Democrats on the committee reportedly said there was plenty of time to deal with the amendment next year, since it couldn’t be placed onto the ballot until November of 2016.

Nope, said the administration representative, according to sources. The governor wants that amendment passed by the end of the spring legislative session. When he was met with stiff resistance, the administration official reportedly became agitated and more than implied that if the constitutional amendment isn’t passed by May 31st, then the governor would not support any revenue increases to patch next fiscal year’s massive $6 billion hole.

The Democrats were shocked. Would the governor really threaten to crash the entire government over a term limits bill?

Yep.

And that message was apparently sent to pretty much all of the working groups last week. Pass this stuff or deal with the horrific consequences of allowing the temporary income tax hike to partially expire.

The governor has repeatedly said that he fully intends to take advantage of the budget crisis in order to push his agenda through the General Assembly. And he has made no bones about what he wants. Term limits have been on his agenda since day one of his campaign. So, the threat shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Still, there were some thunderstruck Democrats last week.

Every poll has shown that the public is wildly enthusiastic about term limits. But legislators? Not so much. There are sound policy arguments against the simplistic solution, including the danger that it would empower experienced lobbyists and staff even more than they already are. Still, the idea’s popularity means that if it’s put on the floor for a final vote, legislators will be placed in a highly uncomfortable position and many will have to vote for the thing – so they absolutely don’t want to be backed into that corner.

Not everything went horribly. The ethics working group, for instance, eventually decided to skip over term limits for now in order to prevent a meltdown. They plan to take up a proposal to codify one of the governor’s executive orders on state employee ethics, which is viewed as pretty much a no-brainer.

The working group will also tackle the governor’s “conflict of interest” legislation, which would, in part, ban direct campaign contributions to members of the executive branch from public employee unions that negotiate employment contracts. The proposal would also ban contributions from hospitals and nursing homes which receive Medicaid funds.

Surprisingly enough, legislative Democrats are open to those ideas. One reason is a bit on the crass side. The less money that unions like AFSCME can give to gubernatorial and other statewide candidates, the more money the unions will be able to contribute to legislative candidates. Plus, as we’ve seen time and time again, money pretty much always finds a way around statutory barricades. AFSCME, for instance, could simply give money to the Democratic Governors Association or the Democratic Party of Illinois or start its own “dark money” independent expenditure PAC.

And there’s apparently even room for compromise on the term limits amendment, insiders say. One reported Rauner fallback position is to apply the limits only to newly elected legislators, perhaps sometime down the road.

But even if they can reach an accord on all of the governor’s proposals, they will still have to deal with the horrendous budget deficit. One of the smartest people I know at the Statehouse took me aside the other day and confided he was alarmed about the coming problem.

The budget hole is estimated to be at least $6 billion. But, this person said, let’s just say that Rauner agrees to $3 billion in tax hikes along with $3 billion in cuts. How the heck does he get that turkey passed? The GA spent weeks fighting over a mere $26 million in cuts to this fiscal year’s budget. Who will vote to cut $3 billion? And what Democrat will vote to raise taxes by $3 billion when that means another $3 billion will have to be cut?

Tough times ahead.

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


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