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Statehouse Insider: If you can’t cut the budget, maybe negotiate a deal

State Journal Register

Sunday, March 19, 2017  |  Article  |  Doug Fink

Budget--State (8) , Rauner, Bruce

Gov. BRUCE RAUNER has given lawmakers a choice the last couple of years: Pass a balanced budget or give him the authority to make cuts that will balance the budget.

Obviously, the legislature has done neither, but the offer was still out there and the Senate Executive Committee gave Rauner's idea a hearing last week.

Interestingly, the bill giving Rauner this power is sponsored by Senate Republican Leader CHRISTINE RADOGNO who has been working with Democrat Senate President JOHN CULLERTON on a "grand bargain" to finally end this budget catastrophe and avoid having Rauner make wholesale cuts. She introduced the bill well before Rauner pulled her own caucus off the bargain just as it looked like things might be coming together.

As the bill sponsor, Radogno presented it to the committee before turning things over to Rauner budget director SCOTT HARRY to answer questions. The Democrats were only too happy to ask them. The previous week Senate committees had hauled in Rauner's agency directors to quiz them on where cuts could be made. They either couldn't or wouldn't offer any details. A couple of them, though, went so far as to say they didn't think their agencies could absorb anymore cuts and still function effectively. Fresh from that experience, the Democrats wanted to know where and how deeply Rauner intended to cut. They didn't get their answers.

Of course, the committee squashed the bill. That was a foregone conclusion before the first question was asked. No way were Democrats going to give Rauner a blank check to whack the budget. Radogno had to know that, too. Heck, even the administration knew it because they were ready with a news releasing criticizing Democrats on the committee milliseconds after the vote occurred.

In the end, the Democrats got to vent against the administration and show they have no intention of giving him broad budget cutting power. Radogno got to use the hearing as a learning moment to underscore that no one wants to go down that particular path.

"It would be much better for us to come together with an agreement," she said. As in some kind of grand bargain.

Now is anyone listening? The Democrats still think it's the Republicans, led by Rauner, who keep shifting things just out of reach of an agreement. Rauner still believes the Democrats haven't gone far enough on the stuff he says is necessary to improve the state's business climate.

It seems like we've been here before.

* "It's a little like handing a razor blade to a toddler right now." Sen. DON HARMON, D-Oak Park, on giving Rauner blanket authority to cut state spending.

* Democrats were on something of a roll last week in various budget hearings.

For example, Sen. ANDY MANAR, D-Bunker Hill, zeroed in on the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Specifically, he was focusing on the foreign trade offices the state runs in such far-flung places as Belgium, Israel, India and closer-to-home Canada and Mexico. In all, Illinois has 11 foreign trade offices and 18 staff members work there.

Then Manar sprung his question: How many DCEO offices are located in southern Illinois and how many staffers work there to improve that area's economy, which has seen more than its share of hard times for a long time?

The DCEO officials didn't have a ready answer. They're being asked back for another hearing in the near future.

* A Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll showed that Rauner and House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN are running neck-and-neck for least popular elected official in the state.

If nothing changes — and why should the next two years be different from the last two — 2018 is going to be one interesting election year.

— Contact Doug Finke: doug.finke@sj-r.com, 788-1527; twitter.com/dougfinkesjr