The state of the State
Stalemate at the Statehouse: the governor v. the speaker
By MICHAEL D. KLEMENS
For two years Gov. James R. Thompson has argued that Illinois needs an income tax increase. For two years House Speaker Michael J. Madigan has opposed Thompson. The result has been Statehouse stalemate.
John Wenum, a professor of political science at Illinois Wesleyan University and a delegate to the 1970 Constitutional Convention, calls the stalemate a "classic power struggle." As a political scientist, Wenum sees the standoff on two levels: between the executive and the legislative branches and between a Republican and a Democrat.
Adding a twist, Wenum says, is the fact that Thompson is a progressive Republican, while Madigan is a conservative Democrat. An income tax redistributes wealth; a higher income tax redistributes more wealth. "There's no strong mood in the American general public for redistributing wealth. I think Mike Madigan is more reflective of the mood of the American public on redistribution of wealth than Jim Thompson," Wenum says.
And when Thompson pushes a 40 percent income tax rate increase he is talking about a big change in a state that prefers small changes. James Nowlan, a professor of political science at Knox College, a former state representative and onetime gubernatorial candidate, observes, "We deal with public policy as well as budgeting in an incremental fashion. We look at what we have and we talk about tinkering with it at the margins.'' As an example he cites the years of studies and special commissions that preceded passage of the original income tax in 1969.
But back to today's stalemate. Wenum's power struggle on two levels provides a framework for examining what is and is not happening in Springfield. The governor's office in Illinois is relatively powerful by virtue of its control over the budget process and its arsenal of vetoes. Lawmakers, especially Speaker Madigan, have challenged Thompson on both points.
Douglas L. Whitley, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, calls the General Assembly's increasing role in the budgetmaking process a key feature of the 85th General Assembly. Last June the General Assembly balked at a Thompson spending plan that included no new money for education. Lawmakers responded by peeling $200 million from other areas to provide an increase for elementary, secondary and higher education. No longer do lawmakers simply add their own projects to the governor's spending request.
Thompson's use of the amendatory veto is a second example of the institutional power struggle. Speaker Madigan and his majority have moved to curtail that power of the governor. Each amendatory veto is reviewed by the House Rules Committee to determine whether it complies with the Illinois Supreme Court's ruling that such vetoes should not alter the bill's fundamental purpose. No bill deemed in noncompliance passed in the 1988 veto session.
The budget and the amendatory veto create institutional conflicts between different branches of government. Although part of the conflict is political, there could be differences no matter who was governor or speaker.
The most fundamental question of politics is "Who gets what?" No matter how strongly the General Assembly exerts its control over the budget, it cannot take away from the governor his control over spending what is budgeted. Example: When new positions are created, the governor gets to fill them
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with Republicans. It is no coincidence that Democrats seized upon the 1,781 positions that would be created under Thompson's proposed 1990 budget and labeled them as "patronage workers." A tax increase would create even more jobs. Democrats are wary, so stalemate continues.
If who gets what is the fundamental question of politics, then controlling the power to make that decision is the fundamental challenge facing politicians of both parties. Madigan also worries about the future of the Democratic party and sees a need for it to shed the label of being a tax-and-spend party. On the other hand, Thompson, the Republican party standard-bearer for an unprecedented four terms, has been arguing of late that the state needs to spend more to invest in its future. Madigan labels Thompson a tax-and-spend governor each chance he gets. Stalemate continues.
There is another wrinkle. In 1990 the federal government will count the number of people in Illinois, and in 1991 Illinois lawmakers will redraw the boundaries of districts for electing state representatives, state senators and Illinois' members of the U.S. House. In 1981 when the two parties did not agree on a compromise for district boundaries, the stand-off ended with a draw from a hat. The Democrats won. Madigan drew the maps that are credited with sustaining Democratic majorities ever since in a state that voted Republican in six consecutive presidential elections. If the Democrats win the governor's office in 1990 and maintain their current majorities in the House and Senate, they will not have to chance a draw from a hat for control of redistricting. That is a powerful reason to keep Thompson poor and weak. Stalemate continues.
And then there is Madigan's leadership-by-consensus style and the difficulties posed in getting consensus from so diverse a group as the Democratic lawmakers. Madigan's House majority includes Chicago lawmakers who would favor redistribution of the wealth, traditional downstate Democrats who do not and the white ethnics from Chicago who have had no leader in the mayor's office and are under the threat of their conservative constituents jumping to the Republican party. Large portions of Madigan's majority are very conservative, as is he.
An example. The fall of 1988 saw two hotly contested campaigns for state representative in the city of Springfield. In each the incumbent was attacked for supporting plans to raise taxes. In each case Madigan supported the Democrat and House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels (R-46, Elmhurst) supported the Republican with cash and campaign staff. What was unusual was that one incumbent was a Democrat and the other a Republican. The attacks that challenger Jon Ellis leveled against Rep. Karen Hasara (R-100) were almost identical to those that Joe Bonefeste made against Rep. Michael D. Curran (D-99). The incumbents won, but incumbents do not relish tough races. Stalemate continues.
Another element of the deadlock is distrust among the leaders. House Minority Leader Daniels and House Speaker Madigan have been feuding over rules, committees and everything else of late. Madigan notes that although Daniels said that he would support more revenue last year, Daniels did not commit himself to the governor's income tax plan. Madigan surmises that late in the process Daniels would have demanded as a condition of his support the inclusion of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association proposal to exempt energy used in production from state sales tax, or some similar restriction. Distrust abounds and stalemate continues.
Because Republicans tend to oppose higher taxes, Thompson is weak in what he can bring to the tax increase table. Citizens from the GOP suburban power base pay more in taxes than they receive in services. As a result House Minority Leader Daniels and Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale) face the task of convincing reluctant members to support a plan that will be unpopular back home. Absent solid GOP backing, Thompson's position is weakened and stalemate continues.
Then there is the inability of the General Assembly to resolve issues that stand in the way of a tax increase. The school aid formula is an example offered by Knox College's Nowlan. Suburban Republicans want changes in the formula that now provides little money for their school districts. In fact Philip has made formula "reform" a condition of his support for an income tax increase. But it would take at least $400 million to change the formula so that no one loses, creating a Catch-22 situation: Without changes to the formula there is no Senate GOP support for a tax increase; without a tax increase there is too little money to overhaul the formula. Stalemate continues.
Related to the education issue, notes Nowlan, is the weakness in the education community's tax increase arguments. He says that educators failed to make a convincing case that higher taxes would mean better schools. "They have not instilled confidence in elected officials that going through the political pain of increasing taxes would generate significantly better outcomes in the educational system," Nowlan says. Without that confidence, Nowlan says, even lawmakers who would probably have voted for a tax increase were happy to let Madigan take the heat. Stalemate continues.
There is also uncertainty over what citizens really believe on the issue of higher taxes tied to education. Thompson cites a host of polls that indicate that voters would pay higher taxes for education, but he says those same citizens do not demand higher taxes. Other politicians do polls, too, and their polling shows opposition to Thompson's tax plan. Confusion reigns and stalemate continues.
Part of the problem that Nowlan sees in breaking the standoff is that Madigan appears to want nothing. "Until it [Madigan's agenda] is known, it's difficult to do anything at the bargaining table. Madigan seems to be interested in local politics, in county politics, and [to be disinterested] in a statewide platform, in a public policy agenda. Without such, people don't seem to know how to draw him out," Nowlan says. Stalemate continues.
The political scientists see continued standoff. I don't think it's going to be resolved until there's a shift in the balance of power," says Illinois Wesleyan's Wenum. Madigan appears strong enough to prevail unless he loses support of his partisans, he adds.
Nowlan calls the stalemate "typical of conflict in a democratic society." He says it will be broken either by crisis or change on the part of one of the parties, but not necessarily soon: "I tend to think Thompson's proposal for a sin [cigarette] tax increase will take the wind out of the sails of those persons who are calling for significant change. And that action may have put off significant change until after 1991." Stalemate continues.□
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