By: Mark Glennon*
Under ordinary circumstances, the process of trading this for that, even with a little pork, is fine. That’s how democracies work and consensus is achieved. But these are no ordinary circumstances. The ingredients are primed in the remaining four weeks of this legislative session to cook up a particularly nasty dish of pork stew. The preparation process may be unusually dirty, too. Here’s what’s going into the pot:
First, tough votes are needed in the Illinois House for the Pritzker Administration to pass its most important initiative, a graduated income tax. The vote will be close, say many reports, and Democrats in more conservative districts are particularly nervous about voting on a potential tax increase of around $3.5 billion and constitutional authorization for more hikes later on a progressive basis.
Something is needed to make it go down a little easier.
That something may be the second ingredient, a capital bill, for which there is widespread support. Our sources say it will happen with bipartisan votes, even if financed by a gas tax increase that the public doesn’t like.
Illinois indeed needs a capital bill for roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The problem, however, is that capital bills in Illinois are notoriously political even in the best of circumstances. They dole out pork in exchange for favors and votes on other matters, resulting in projects that make little sense.
Consider Illinois’ last capital program, called Jobs Now. It passed with bipartisan support in 2009 with claims of the best of intentions – stimulating new jobs and construction to counteract the Great Recession. It was riddled with political pork. Five years after it passed, Governor Pat Quinn was still using money from it to buy political support in his 2014 election bid. We wrote about it then. Jobs Now projects included things like the Peotone airport, which went nowhere; high speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis, which still hasn’t materialized; decorative LED lighting to illuminate the cables and towers over the Mississippi River at Quincy; and over $60 million to wealthy Northwestern University and University of Chicago.
In the closing hours of each recent Spring session in the General Assembly, all sorts of matters were thrown into massive pieces of legislation, particularly the budget and budget implementation bill. Rank and file legislators have only hours to review them. Their full contents are understood only weeks or even months later. Legislative leaders dictated the content – House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
Is that same preparation process to be followed again, letting Madigan and Cullerton add the final, secret ingredients to the stew?
If so, Pritzker’s promises about transparency will be in shambles. From the start, he claimed transparency was a priority, issuing executive orders purporting to ensure it on his first day in office. But the process appears to be going down as it typically has. If Pritzker intends to head off the usual last minute dump on the General Assembly at the end of this month, he better get going.
Even if he tried, Pritzker probably couldn’t outmaneuver Madigan and Cullerton. Perhaps no mortal could, especially Madigan, whose genius in manipulating the legislative process is unmatched. Pritzker has nobody on his staff capable of managing him, and he surely knows that.
Illinois has no money to spare on inefficient capital projects. From all we hear, Madigan has total freedom to do as he wants. He and the rest of the legislative leadership in this one-party state will have a free hand to manipulate a capital bill, the budget and everything else.
Unless Pritzker and some of the newer lawmakers surprise us and change the recipe, this won’t turn out well.