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Column: Illinois’ do-nothing legislature will finally convene. Its inaction took a big toll.

Chicago Tribune

Friday, January 8, 2021  |  Commentary  |  By David Greising - resident and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association

Budget--State (8) , Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Legislature (56) , Pay to Play, Corruption , Political Parties (Incld Tea Party) (39a) , Taxes, income (86) Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

The Illinois General Assembly is set to start a lame-duck session in Springfield on Friday. The purpose is to consider laws that, if enacted, could affect daily life across the state.

The return to work is long overdue. The state legislature skipped its traditional veto session in November and December. COVID-19 took the blame, but House Speaker Mike Madigan was a reason too. It would have been a distraction to hold even a fall veto session with the speaker at the center of a federal corruption probe.

Given the state of Illinois government — all but insolvent, rife with corruption, struggling against a resurgent pandemic and indifferent to issues of equity — there are times when it would almost feel like a relief if the legislature did not meet. But doing the people’s business is its job, and Illinois has a lot of business that needs to be done.

In 2020 the legislature adjourned a COVID-shortened session on May 23 and never met again. This taught us something else about the state legislature. It turns out inaction can do its damage too.

A new law from Springfield at least has the potential to make life better. Inaction creates a void that carries its own high costs.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “fair tax” failed on Election Day in November. Neither Pritzker nor the tax’s opponents had a backup plan to fully address a $3.9 billion budget gap this fiscal year, with worse yet to come.

Without a veto session, there was no way to address the immediate deficit. Lopping some $700 million in state spending is the best Pritzker could do. He needs the legislature’s help to do much more.

That leaves a significant chunk of unfinished business for the lame-duck session. And prospects aren’t good.

Republicans have floated a rumor that Democrats have a “secret plan” to raise taxes. In fact, it’s far more likely the Dems have set no plans at all. They’ve been too busy blaming Republicans for the “fair tax” failure.

The blame-game stalemate has left the two parties, and the people of Illinois, without much hope for a fiscal fix.

The vacuum in political leadership has affected the General Assembly in other areas.

The hot topics of the 2020 spring session — ethics reform, the fight for fair maps, adequate funding for education and equity reforms — all came to naught. The state legislature could not even find a way to adopt new rules that would allow it to meet remotely in the face of the pandemic.

Some two dozen other state assemblies found new ways to meet, despite the pandemic. Not Illinois.

At the center of all the inaction — if inaction has a center — was the saga of Mike Madigan. The long-serving speaker and the boss of Illinois Democratic politics is at the center of a corruption probe that so far has yielded an indictment of four political cronies in an alleged bribery scheme.

Madigan says he did nothing wrong and he has not been charged. But like President Donald Trump, who abandoned his presidential duties the moment Joe Biden was elected, Madigan set his own governance responsibilities aside almost from the moment the federal indictment labeled him as “Public Official A.”

Instead of calling the legislature for a veto session last year, Madigan spent his time polling and phoning members. He focused on finding ways to win their support for his speakership, not fixing the people’s problems.

Even so, 19 House members have declared publicly they will not back him. Madigan has secured support from the Legislative Black Caucus and the Latino caucus. As a result, advancement of the Black Caucus’ equity agenda looks like the one sure thing that’s slated for the lame-duck session.

Advancing equity in Illinois is a worthy legislative objective. Many of the Black Caucus agenda items have merit. Too bad Madigan’s job needed to be on the line before he committed to address it.

Even with the support of those two caucuses in hand, Madigan still faces a tough battle to hang on to the speaker’s gavel. The new General Assembly convenes Jan. 13, and before the work starts, the Democrats will need to choose their speaker.

Nineteen Democrats have said they won’t support Madigan. This leaves him six votes short of the 60 he needs to retain the job. Of the 19 Democrats who oppose Madigan, 13 are women, three of whom have said they’d like to be speaker.

Due in part to Madigan’s problems, the legislature last fall accomplished very little. No ethics reform. No budget fix. No legislative response to the pandemic. No statewide approach to the challenges facing our schools.

I said before that legislative inaction has its costs. When the Democratic caucus votes for speaker later this month, perhaps the lack of leadership on so many fronts should factor in as another reason to deny Madigan the job.