Is it possible to start breaking up the budget logjam that threatens to shut down state government—adversely impacting people who provide and depend on key services—over cocktails and Twizzlers on the veranda of a Springfield apartment overlooking a scenic park?
Maybe not, but freshman lawmaker Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican, says his residence is as good a place as any to jump-start long-stalled negotiations between another newbie, GOP Governor Bruce Rauner, and the veteran Democrats who control the General Assembly, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
Butler’s whimsy masks the deep frustration that afflicts lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who sit a few feet from each other in the Capitol, but might as well be miles apart when they’re discussing the best ways to improve the state’s sorry economic conditions.
As a result, three-plus months into the current fiscal year the state still doesn’t have a budget, and there’s no indication the stalemate will end any time soon.
So Illinois residents—especially those who rely on state funding of human services and government paychecks—wait anxiously for the well to run dry, which it will, without a budget deal, because spending exceeds revenue by billions of dollars.
Rep. Butler’s frustration was echoed by two other Central Illinois lawmakers—freshman GOP Rep. Avery Bourne and second-term Senate Democrat Andy Manar— at a recent Better Government Association “Idea Forum” entitled “New Lawmakers vs. Old Problems.”
We held it in Springfield to hear from legislators who don’t have the clout or seniority to break an impasse that holds the entire General Assembly hostage, but might have fresh perspectives on the internecine warfare.
Sen. Manar says he talks daily with members of both parties to encourage dialogue, but adds, “it’s absolutely ridiculous the leadership and the governor haven’t met since May. There’s no way we get a resolution without meetings.”
He laments the fact that the collegial atmosphere surrounding Rauner’s January Inauguration evaporated completely when the new governor introduced his controversial “turnaround agenda.”
“The wheels flew off the bus,” Manar says.
Rep. Butler says he keeps a jar of Twizzlers on his desk in the House to encourage dialogue. “It attracts Republicans and Democrats like flypaper.”
But sadly, it’s not catching bi-partisan solutions.
Butler says compromise is difficult because both sides are campaigning for the 2016 elections, not governing.
Rep. Bourne adds, “It doesn’t help that both parties believe they’re winning,” so neither wants to blink.
But her restive constituents just want a fair and balanced budget, she says. “They’re not calling to say, ‘Way to go—we’re winning.’”
The impasse drags on because court orders and selective appropriations are funding most government services, so there’s not enough pain to prompt demands for a settlement.
But state coffers will be empty in a few months without a budget agreement, and then more than Twizzlers will hit the fan.
Rep. Bourne is right—there aren’t any winners in this high-stakes game of chicken—but there could be a lot of losers, and no matter how much both sides spend on trash-talking mailers and media ads, a government shutdown is an irresponsible dereliction of duty.
It’s time for Rauner and legislative leaders to start discussing a workable compromise, and Butler’s veranda might be good a place to begin.
Cocktails, Twizzlers and 13 million Illinois residents are waiting.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.