- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - In the inevitable chess game unfolding in the state Capitol this year over how to fix Illinois’ woeful budget, Democratic lawmakers say their first move is watching new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner make his.

House and Senate Democrats will seek to protect their own interests and constituencies in eventual negotiations with Rauner. While he speaks of the need for steep budget cuts, they’ll likely seek to protect social services, state workers and Medicaid recipients, and many were ready last spring to support an extension of the income tax increase that expired in January.

But they’re keeping their playbook close to the vest as Rauner prepares to lay out his priorities beginning with Wednesday’s State of the State speech. They talk of deferring to the governor, but experts said they also are content to let him assume responsibility for a healthy share of the financial pain to come.

“I think until we hear a State of the State, until we see him advance his budget, it’s going to be difficult for us to have something to play off of,” said House Assistant Majority Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat.

In the meantime, Lang said, “you’re going to have some Democrats talking about the needs in the social service community, the needs in education, needing a capital (construction) bill, various things in the coming weeks. But certainly this process is really going to have to start with the governor.”



As they begin a new legislative session, Democratic leaders acknowledge that addressing the state’s potential $5.7 billion budget hole by July is by far the most pressing issue.

Last spring, the Democrats passed a $35.7 billion budget that didn’t allocate enough money to cover state expenses, anticipating that lawmakers could return after the election to take up a proposal to extend an income tax increase. But House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats, put off voting on taxes, saying they were heeding Rauner’s calls to not address “substantive” issues until his January inauguration.

Madigan is no stranger to tense budget negotiations after controlling the House for 30 years. Steve Brown, his spokesman, said it was “impossible” to comment on Democrats’ plans, because Rauner had not yet offered a specific proposal. He said the House would have to look hard at any Rauner proposals to raise revenues, such as a temporary restoration of the increase tax bump, including “a detailed plan on how the money would be spent.” Rauner said during the campaign he opposed extending the income tax increase, but later said he would be open to incrementally rolling it back.

Democrats say if Rauner does not support a tax increase, it’s incumbent upon him to propose an alternative.

“We had a campaign where he (Rauner) seemed to imply that he wanted to lower taxes and spend more money on education,” said Senate President John Cullerton. “That seems to be contradictory. We’re eagerly waiting on his proposed solutions.”

Cullerton said Democrats believe some of the “talking points” Rauner has used to preview his State of the State are “skewed.” But he said they would wait to provide a “rebuttal” until after the governor’s specific budget blueprint is unveiled in a second speech later this month.

Charlie Wheeler, a University of Illinois-Springfield professor of public affairs, says the Democrats’ initial deference to Rauner is tactical and could offer them some protection in the next election. They also want to see Republican lawmakers participate more than they did under the last two governors, both Democrats.

“If I’m a Democrat running for re-election and I voted for a tax increase but it was proposed by the Republican governor, you as the Republican opponent can’t attack me on it,” Wheeler said.

Both legislative GOP leaders have said they’re cognizant that a conciliatory tone is important as they begin to have more of a role under Rauner. But they note that Democrats still maintain supermajorities that can pass bills without GOP support and override any Rauner veto.

“We’re here to help solve the problems even though we know that by and large that the Democrats created them,” Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said.

For his part, Rauner has pledged to meet frequently with Democratic leaders to reach consensus.

“Gov. Rauner will outline bipartisan plans (to) turn Illinois around in his state of the state address on Wednesday and looks forward to working with both parties to accomplish that goal,” spokesman Lance Trover said.

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Follow Kerry Lester on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kerrylester

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