With legal ‘fig leaf’ gone, real intentions exposed

Published June 3, 2015

There are three ways to “balance ” a state budget: raise taxes, cut spending or play “make believe.”

At least that’s the explanation a budget director for a former governor gave me years ago.

The Illinois Constitution requires that the legislature not budget to spend more money than it expects to take in the coming year.

In other words it requires a balanced budget.

For years, lawmakers have gotten around this requirement by playing “make believe” with the numbers.

They’ll pretend the state’s anticipated revenues will be greater than any realistic projections show. The lawmakers then call the plan “balanced” and pass it into the law.

This legal fig leaf is responsible for the state racking up billions of dollars in deficits year after year.

But now the fig leaf is gone and House Speaker Mike Madigan is baring it all.

Last week, he announced he would push through a budget that spends $3 billion more than the he believes the state will collect in taxes. (The actual number may be closer to $4 billion but hey, what’s an extra $1 billion?)

Regardless, the Speaker of the House stood in front of room full of reporters and announced he was going to work to send an unbalanced budget to Gov. Rauner.

And that is just what he did.

And not a single reporter thought to ask, “Gee, Mr. Speaker isn’t that like, you know, unconstitutional?”

Madigan is trying to force Gov. Rauner and Republican lawmakers to support a tax increase by passing a spending plan first.

It would be like if your spouse headed to the mall with your credit card and announced, “Honey, the reason I spent so much today is because I want you to go out and get a second job and I thought this would encourage you to do it.”

It’s a scenario that only makes sense in the twisted world of Springfield politics.

Madigan started out his news conference saying he believes Rauner was “reckless” for introducing a budget in February he believes had a $2 billion hole in it.

Madigan’s solution?

Introduce his own budget with a $4 billion hole in it.

What does that make him? Super-duper reckless?

But more importantly, doesn’t his conduct violate the constitution that he swore to uphold?

Sadly, those are the questions that aren’t getting asked.

But they set the stage for what will likely be the biggest political battle in Illinois history.

Gov. Rauner has vowed to veto any unbalanced budget and he says he won’t support a tax hike until there is substantial reform of the state’s business and political climate.

Madigan has balked at some of the political reforms because they threaten his entrenched political power.

So both sides are now preparing for political war.

And Rauner is determined to get his message out.

On Sunday he said, “Speaker Madigan has been the one constant in Illinois politics for more than 30 years. We’ve been driven into the ditch. You know what? The truth hurts and you know what the truth needs to be known. And if anybody wants to hide from the truth so be it. The truth needs to be known by the people of Illinois.”

That portends for a brutal summer.

But at least no one is playing “make believe” anymore.