This is Speaker Michael Madigan’s Illinois.
It is the state Madigan has built through more than three decades as Speaker of the House, and since 1998 as boss of the majority Democratic Party. It is a state he largely rules despite being accountable only to the residents of his 22nd Legislative District on the southwest side of Chicago.
It also is a state in crisis, a crisis he and his fellow majority Democrats have created through years of irresponsible spending, including using dollars meant for pension payments to other purposes – after voting to make those pensions so generous as to be unaffordable.
Not coincidentally, Illinois has the highest unfunded pension liability in the country – about $130 billion – even though 25 percent of the state’s general spending goes to pension payments.
Madigan’s Illinois also has by far the most units of local government, and not coincidentally, one of the highest property tax rates.
It is a state that has not had a budget in almost three years because legislators, under Madigan’s leadership, have been unwilling to make spending cuts required to give Illinoisans a government they can afford. Addressing our state’s systemic failings might anger their state-employee and union voter base, something Madigan’s Democrats are loath to do.
Instead, our state has about $15 billion in unpaid bills.
In nearly three years without a balanced budget, state road construction projects have halted. So have public building projects. The network of nonprofit organizations that provide social services, including to seniors and those with physical and mental disabilities, has withered with the loss of funds. Tuition assistance for low-income college students has dried up, too.
If the stalemate reaches a third year, state universities could lose their accreditation, which would result in loss of access to federal funds, enrollment declines, tuition increases, and depressed economies in several Illinois cities. The pace of out-migration from our state will only accelerate, placing an even greater burden on those who remain.
Our state also is perilously close to having its credit rating reduced to junk status, which could cost taxpayers millions in higher interest payments.
Madigan’s preferred remedy for our state has long been to impose an income tax increase, taking more money out of the pockets of working families. He’s not accountable to most of us, anyway.
But members of Madigan’s Democratic caucus, and the state Democratic Party, are accountable to him. They know that if they are disloyal, they will be punished.
Public anger is growing, however, which may have prompted more statements by Madigan to reporters than usual during this special session of the legislature. Much of it has been lip service.
He’s said his Democrats are “prepared to work with anyone,” they are “fully engaged,” and have given issues brought forward by the governor “full consideration.”
Incredibly, the man who controls the state’s majority party and has the power to call – or not call – any bills for a vote says Rauner is the one holding the budget-making hostage with an “extreme right agenda.”
Rauner is not without fault, but at least he was elected by our entire state. He carried 101 of Illinois’ 102 counties when elected in 2014 and garnered more than 1.8 million votes – more than half of all votes cast. Two years later, Madigan received 17,155 votes in a contested primary he won easily.
Yet the soft-spoken Madigan is the one in control, as he has been for 33 years.
His leadership has brought us here, and so long as Democrats continue to meekly follow where he leads, we have little hope for real improvement in our state’s fortunes.