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Thursday, May 25, 2017 12:30 am

This is the wrong hill to die on

PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
Democrats have been privately grumbling for a while now that Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t truly interested in good faith negotiations on a balanced budget with economic reforms to end the two-and-a-half-year Statehouse stalemate.

But Senate President John Cullerton spent days and days negotiating the details of a four-year property tax freeze with Rauner, only to have his spokesman tell me last week that he hadn’t acceded to Rauner’s demand for a four-year freeze.

Look, in this business, you only negotiate on a bill you flatly oppose if you’re trying to run out the clock. Otherwise, you just kill it. And because of this, people in the governor’s office are saying they don’t think that Cullerton really wants a deal.

Rauner moved off his demand for a five-year freeze to a four-year freeze. The two men then discussed side issues, like the timeline and the process for locally opting out of the freeze or for making it permanent. The governor wanted a statewide vote, Cullerton wanted local votes. Cullerton appeared to prevail. But Rauner would only agree to limited exemptions from the freeze, bond payments being one of them. Cullerton wanted more exemptions, pension payments being one of those.

Then, last week, Cullerton attempted to move legislation with identical language to Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s original property tax freeze bill she introduced way back in January. It failed because it required a three-fifths vote to freeze taxes on local home rule governments. Cullerton said afterward that he may strip out the home rule provision and run it again – which would, of course, mean that the city of Chicago would be exempt.

Without a property tax freeze amenable to the governor, I just don’t know how this impasse gets resolved.

Illinois has some of the highest property taxes in the country. So if the negotiations fall apart, the Senate Democrats’ refusal to pass a “real” freeze will be a political gift for Gov. Rauner.

The issue also comes neatly wrapped in the governor’s favorite bow: House Speaker Michael Madigan. The House Speaker is, of course, a property tax appeals lawyer. Rauner said the other day for the umpteenth time that Madigan’s legal work was a clear case of conflict of interest and is evidence of how corrupt the state is. Senate President Cullerton has also done some property tax appeals work, so Rauner can easily lump Cullerton in with Madigan on the conflict of interest/corruption stuff. And Rauner urged the Senate Democrats last week to resist Madigan, who he claimed had sent his special interests to the chamber in an attempt to kill the grand bargain.

And then there was last week’s biggest political news. Billionaire Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker was thrashed in the media for obtaining huge property tax assessment rebates and reductions for an empty and “uninhabitable” mansion next door to his own Chicago palace. The mansion apparently became even more legally uninhabitable after Pritzker had the house’s toilets uninstalled. That was clearly the work of a too clever by half property tax attorney, who Pritzker may want to think about throwing under the nearest bus if this publicity gets any worse. And, despite firm denials, it’s pretty clear that Madigan is backing Pritzker, which makes this all the better for Rauner.

Even a child could frame this issue for Rauner. You take a universally and intensely unpopular property tax system, combine it with the state’s most wildly unpopular politician (Madigan) and use all that to blame the Senate Democrats for killing the grand bargain and, in the process, throw lots more mud on their “frontrunner” candidate.

It’s the worst possible hill the Democrats could choose to die on. Yes, the Senate President has legitimate policy concerns about the property tax freeze. But this is a political no-brainer.

The best idea I heard last week was to take this issue away from Rauner and Cullerton and allow senators on both sides of the aisle to negotiate it. Doing that very thing seemed to help move the revenue/budget talks and workers’ compensation reform forward, even though they’re not wrapped up as I write this.

If, as the Republicans privately contend, Cullerton’s goal is to deprive Rauner of a clear “win” on a property tax freeze, then nothing will work. The one thing we do know is that taking the issue away from Rauner and Cullerton couldn’t possibly make things worse.

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

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