When I joined the Sun-Times as a cub reporter in 1974, one of the newsmen on the paper’s Statehouse beat in Springfield was Charlie Wheeler. Charlie left the paper in ’93 to join the Public Affairs Reporting program at Sangamon State University—it’s now the University of Illinois at Springfield—and that’s where he’s been ever since, training budding journalists and watching state government. Few people understand the nuts and bolts of lawmaking as well as Charlie, or the inherent tension between governors from one party and legislative leaders from the other. So my ears perked up recently when I heard he was offering Illinois’ new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and his Democratic adversaries, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, a roadmap to consider following when they’re ready to exit their budget bunkers. Charlie’s column, for “Illinois Issues” magazine, suggests a “split-the-difference” approach to bridging the gap between the hardened positions that prevent meaningful negotiations over Rauner’s pro-business “turnaround agenda” and the legislative leaders’ budget priorities. The “Wheeler Way” wouldn’t completely satisfy either side, but both would get some of what they want. Charlie harkens back to an old negotiating tool used successfully in years past: the “agreed bill” process, by which business, labor and other stakeholders hashed out their differences and came up with compromise legislation for lawmakers and the governor to run with. What would that look like today? Well, here’s Charlie on Rauner’s pet issues:
- Workers’ Compensation. Combine the governor’s demand for tighter definitions of workplace injuries with closer oversight of insurance companies, a must for Democrats.
- Tort Reform. Ask Democrats to choose among: stricter rules for deciding where to file personal injury lawsuits; restricting awards for medical expenses to what’s actually paid, not billed; or sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide whether to limit medical malpractice awards, punitive damages and certain other judgments.
- Property Tax Freeze. Persuade Rauner to drop his anti-union language, which would severely restrict collective bargaining and eliminate prevailing wage requirements on public works projects. That would enable Democrats to support a freeze.
- Redistricting and Term Limits. Leave those volatile issues, which Democrats view as Republican power grabs, out of the legislative process and in the hands of outside groups that can organize petition drives to put those questions to the voters.
One referendum campaign is already under way on redistricting, and term limits could be next. That’s is a summary of Charlie’s suggestions—a “framework,” he writes, that “isn’t the only way…out of the current impasse…but rather an example of what’s possible if the current protagonists put the good of everyday Illinoisans above personal egos.” Charlie doesn’t discuss budget cuts or tax increases—the other key ingredients in any final agreement—but the Democrats’ willingness to compromise on Rauner’s agenda items could break the logjam and enable the two sides to find common ground on the remaining issues. None of this is rocket science—it’s simply the kind of good-old-fashioned give-and-take that’s necessary to resolve political disputes involving different parties with different constituencies and competing ideologies. Charlie’s been watching this tug-o-war between the Executive and Legislative branches in Springfield for nearly half a century, and his insights are as valuable today as they were in 1974, when he was giving this cub reporter a primer on dealings under the Dome. Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.