Daily Egyptian

Opinion: Ding dong, Rauner’s budget proposal is DOA

Daily+Egyptian+file+photo.
Daily Egyptian file photo.

Daily Egyptian file photo.

Daily Egyptian file photo.

By Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

At first it sounded like Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Dorothy” moment.

About a third of the way through his budget address to the General Assembly on Wednesday, after outlining the gruesome financial condition of the state, the first-term Republican offered his Democratic opponents in the legislature the option to try to balance Illinois’ budget by giving “the executive branch the authority to cut spending to live within our revenues.”

I half expected a scepter-wielding fairy to descend from the rafters at that moment, to interrupt the speech and tell him, “you’ve always had the authority,” just as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, came down in a magic bubble at the end of “The Wizard of Oz” to tell the flummoxed Dorothy that she always had the power to return to Kansas.

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“Close your eyes, tap your heels together three times and think to yourself – ‘There’s no veto like the reduction veto, there’s no veto like the reduction veto, there’s no veto like the reduction veto.'”

You see, for closing in on 50 years, the state constitution has given the governor considerable opportunity to take his scalpel to spending, line by line. He (so far they’ve all been men) can eliminate or trim specific items in the appropriations bills sent up by the legislature, which then forces the legislature to try to override his veto.

It’s part of the give-and-take of the annual budget process – a process that Rauner has staunchly refused to take part in as he holds out for legislative OK of nonbudget items on his so-called turnaround agenda.

The Democrats all but dared him to take part last year when they sent him their spending wish list. It was a series of appropriations bills that totaled some $4 billion more than anticipated tax revenues, not a budget, as some have characterized it, but an opening gambit. The implicit invitation: “Yes, we know it’s out of balance, as was your own budget proposal, but hack away, guv! And when you’ve decided what and where you want to spend, it’ll be our turn.”

There’s no veto like the reduction veto.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Much of state spending is mandated or constrained by other laws, which helps explain why we’ve seen less than a 10 percent reduction in outlays over the eight months Illinois has been without a budget.

But Rauner, who, obviously, was perfectly well aware of his various veto powers, declined even to try.

He knew that unilaterally cutting government programs, many of them popular, would be as politically dangerous for him as making unilateral requests for tax increases to pay for them would be for Democrats.

So rather than look like he was picking and choosing, Rauner rejected in full all the appropriations bills except the one dealing with primary and secondary education. Then he began using the Democrats’ proposal as an example of their profligacy as he demanded “reforms” favored by business but opposed by organized labor.

The two sides have been at a standoff ever since. And those who were hoping for a breakthrough Wednesday when Rauner introduced his budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1 were disappointed.

That budget has a conspicuous $3.5 billion hole in it. Rauner told the members of the General Assembly that they could fill it either by acceding to certain, unspecified elements of his “turnaround agenda” that would “accompany a negotiated balance of spending reductions and revenue” – the demand Democrats have been rejecting all along – or by giving him “the flexibility to reallocate resources and make reductions to state spending as necessary.”

Not the ordinary flexibility he’s always had, but super flexibility as outlined in the Unbalanced Budget Response Act (Senate Bill 2789) introduced Wednesday by Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.

That proposal gives him unprecedented emergency authority until mid-2017 over special funds, the amount of state tax money that goes to municipalities, pension investments, rates paid to Medicaid and other human services providers and so on.

It’s reminiscent of the sort of power that a CEO has over a company – not surprising given Rauner’s private-sector background. And it’s obviously not something any opposition party would ever agree to.

Rauner’s ultimatum, couched in empty platitudes about compromise, didn’t offer a meaningful choice, just more of the same.

And Illinois remains on the yellow brick road to nowhere.

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(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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