Illinois Democrats hold a majority; caucuses are divided on spending

Posted: Jun. 18, 2011 10:25 pm Updated: Nov. 28, 2014 10:41 am


HOLDING MAJORITY control of Illinois government does not mean all Democrats win all of the time.

Last week's budget showdown was a case in point. Many Chicago-area Senate Democrats had to retreat, at least temporarily, when they could not convince House Democrats to provide higher funding for educational programs and human services.

Battle lines were drawn during the spring session when House members, in a rare show of agreement between Democrats and Republicans, set $33.2 billion as the maximum budget they would support. That was roughly $1 billion less than Senate Democrats had planned for the budget.

Initially, the House budget sat for a while in the Senate and the Senate plan sat in the House. Something had to give because if the budget was not approved by the end of session on May 31, it would take a three-fifths vote and Republicans would gain the power to reject the spending plans.

Senate Democrats eventually accepted the House version, but were unwilling to admit defeat. They put an additional $430 million into the capital construction reauthorization plan, hoping to smuggle additional money to educational and human services programs.

House Democrats simply refused to approve the reauthorization plan.

Gov. Pat Quinn sounded the alarm early this month, saying highway and bridge projects around the state would have to be shut down unless a capital construction bill won approval. Quinn said 52,000 jobs would be lost.

If Senate Democrats thought the pressure would force the House to relent, they were wrong.

A scant four days before Illinois Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig said construction zones would start shutting down, the Senate Democrats held a teleconference to decide their next move.

Senate President John Cullerton's members eventually agreed to fund the construction program for the full fiscal year.

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, said many black senators were angry that programs favored by their constituents were being shortchanged. Trotter said those members will push for more money in January -- hoping to boost funding for those programs before the end of the fiscal year.

The Senate Democrat's disappointment arguably can be traced back to one of their victories.

Last January the House and Senate met and passed a 67 percent increase in income taxes for individuals and for businesses. The tax hike passed without any Republican votes and just before some Democratic incumbents were going to leave the statehouse due to losses in the November election.

Republicans won a majority in the U.S. House last November and made some gains in the Senate. Illinois voters elected Republicans to a U.S. Senate seat, as well as the offices of comptroller and treasurer. The conservative surge may have been stronger in some other states, but it was enough to convince Illinois Democrats that voter discontent was on the rise.

So during the regular session Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, agreed on spending caps with House Republican Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego. The likely strategy is that House Democrats could inoculate themselves from voter backlash by cutting back on state spending.

Cullerton's caucus -- especially those in the Chicago area -- didn't adopt that strategy. Not too many Republicans win in Chicago, so the Democrats might have seen no benefit in passing a conservative budget.

Cullerton's statement after last Thursday's caucus teleconference blended a commitment not to hold up the construction program, while still holding out hope for future budget hikes.

"The state's construction program should continue, uninterrupted," Cullerton said in the announcement that a capital bill without add-ons will come up for a vote on Wednesday.

"There are still major structural deficiencies in the House budget that will become clear in the months ahead. I look forward to having the opportunity to address issues, such as the underfunding of education and social service commitments," Cullerton said.

Next year is an election year, so that funding hike is anything but certain -- even with majority status in the Senate and House.


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