Doug Finke: Legislature has a long way to go and a short time to get there

Doug Finke

Well, the gauntlet is down. Sort of.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, absolutely, positively wants the General Assembly to finish its business this spring by May 29. That was two weeks from last Friday. It supposedly has to do with Cullerton wanting to attend his kid's graduation ceremony. It also means any other lawmaker wanting to attend graduation ceremonies or other end of month activities will be free to go.

That's Cullerton's goal, but of course that doesn't mean he will be successful. Given the amount of work still to do, you have to figure it's even odds Cullerton will fail. All four legislative leaders met together (a rarity) Friday and apparently agreed to go full speed ahead on ethics reforms and a capital plan and both of those may be close to agreement.

But from the way Cullerton and others talked, the basic state budget is another matter.

Lawmakers could always decide just to punt, slap together a budget they know isn't balanced, drop it on the governor's desk and let him work it out. We've all seen how well that idea worked when they did it in 2008.

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Gov. Pat Quinn has decided maybe it isn't such a good idea to put 3,000 or more state workers on notice all at once they're about to be fired unless he decides to rehire them.

Quinn's pushing for changes to a bill sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan that would reduce the number of people affected, even though Quinn seemed to embrace Madigan's bill as originally introduced. You can accuse him of waffling, but Quinn's now taking a more prudent approach to ridding state government of bad eggs hired by either George Ryan or Rod Blagojevich.

To some degree, you wonder how much of this Quinn brought on himself. Any new governor is going to bring his own people into key administrative jobs. But way back in December, Quinn used the volatile term "fumigate" to describe what state government needed. That implied a total house cleaning, beyond just top people. The term also struck a chord with people, including Madigan.

The speaker seems way too happy to "help" Quinn with that house cleaning.

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Madigan has gone after state employees before. Remember 1992?

It was only the second year of Jim Edgar’s term as governor. He did not automatically command the respect and deference that he gets now as a sort of political elder.

The state was once again in severe financial straits. (What a surprise) Edgar already had a reputation as "Governor No" because he resisted spending increases for most state programs or creating new ones. The state couldn't afford it. But a lot of those programs provided the kinds of services favored by Democrats and their constituents.

In late May of that year, Madigan took to the House floor to speak about the budget, which was still being hashed out. He said he would be offering a series of amendments to the budget that would protect the interests of the minorities and the poor.

"These will be amendments that lay off white bureaucrats who live in Chatham and the suburban areas of Springfield," Madigan famously said. "For the first time in the Edgar administration, those people will be hurting, not just the poor who cannot defend themselves."

Remember that at the time, Illinois was in its 16th year with Republican governors. Republicans pretty much had a lock on state jobs. Democrats resented that, and the fact they felt the state budget was crafted to protect those Republican jobs rather than help the poor.

Madigan's comments caused an uproar. Chatham's mayor had bumper stickers made up to sell that referenced the "white bureaucrats of Chatham" remark. T-shirts were also printed. (For those not familiar with the Springfield area, Chatham is a city of more than 10,000 just a couple of miles south of Springfield that indeed is home to a fair number of state workers).

The best rebuttal occurred that year at the annual Chatham Sweet Corn Festival. The traditional cow chip throw featured a cardboard cutout of Madigan as a target.

In the end, there was no wholesale slaughter of white bureaucrats from Chatham or anywhere else. There are those who think that the big "fumigation" will have the same result.

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 ordoug.finke@sj-r.com.