Illinois Leaders Meeting: They Came, They Spoke, They Didn't Agree

Dec 2, 2015

With Illinois in its sixth month without a budget, the state's top political leaders met Tuesday in Springfield. It was the first time they'd all gotten together in months. Was anything accomplished?

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan called the meeting productive. Other leaders disagreed.
Credit File photo by Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

In a word: No.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats who run the Illinois House and Senate seem as divided as ever.

Illinois has been without a budget since July 1. Rauner says he won't negotiate on state spending until Democrats first agree to change Illinois law. Rauner says it should be more friendly to business and less friendly to labor. Democrats say that would hurt the middle class and they won't go along with it. And that's where things have been, as days passed into weeks and weeks passed into months.

Until Tuesday, when Rauner convened the meeting with a simple welcome. 

"Good afternoon," he began. "Thank you for coming together today for this meeting. I look forward to a good discussion."

That's right: The top five politicians in Illinois had not met as a group in more than six months — that's Rauner, plus the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Not long ago, a few good-government groups started complaining about this and basically offered to host peace talks. The Rauner administration grabbed the ball and ran with it.

"Today is obviously a slightly different format in the sense that we all agreed that the initial part of this discussion will be open to the public via live feed camera," he said. "We have three cameras here; they'll focus in on each of us as we speak."

Calling that part of the meeting a "discussion" was a stretch. Instead, they each had ten minutes to make debate-style opening statements.

All of the participants, in both parties, used their time to basically say the same things they've been saying all year. Then the cameras were turned off and — we're told — the real meeting began.

The stakes are high: Illinois isn't paying the contractors who take care of the state's most vulnerable residents, including people with disabilities and mental illness. Universities also haven't gotten state funding, leading some to lay off staff. And low-income students, who haven't been able to collect state grants, are left wondering whether they'll be able to afford to keep going to school.

Back in the Capitol, the meeting was over in a bit under an hour. Senate President John Cullerton was the first to emerge, and gave the most optimistic assessment: "It was productive, and we're agreed to ... what I thought the best part was ... we agreed to have future meetings, hopefully early next week."

But when the Republican legislators came out, they immediately took issue with Cullerton's remarks -- including Christine Radogno, who is the Senate minority leader.

"The characterization that there's not communication going on is dead wrong," she said. "The problem we experience is when there is a meeting, is at least the speaker says nothing, the senate president talks a lot, and some of what he says is different out here than in there. And that's a problem. We need to compromise on some things. The fact that we're not meeting is simply untrue."

House Speaker Michael Madigan took a different view, saying, "My response there is to say that I learned a long time ago that when you talk, you don't learn. And my purpose today was to listen to learn."

Madigan, like Cullerton, was generally upbeat about the meeting. But neither he nor anyone else could point to any areas of agreement or any differences that had been resolved. We don't know what Rauner thought about it; the governor declined to take questions from reporters.

Meanwhile, social service agencies continue to close, colleges and universities are struggling, and Illinois' deficit continues to grow.

About the only even-somewhat definitive result of the meeting is — they agreed to meet again. Someday. Maybe next week.

"We didn't settle on a date because most of us hadn't brought our schedules with us," Madigan said.

Watch the video of the public portion here: