There were lots of losers during the state legislative session which ended last month. But there were a few winners, so let’s take a look at them.
First up, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner.
Never before has a political party nominated a gubernatorial candidate who’s had more impact on a legislative session than Rauner did this year. The gazillionaire’s unlimited supply of money and his constant threats to “Shake up Springfield” clearly put legislators of both parties on edge all spring – going back to even before he won the primary.
The Democrats surely know in their guts that much of what Rauner said about Springfield isn’t false. The long-entrenched powers-that-be stifle innovation and prevent actual compromise. Why wasn’t a scaled back income tax hike ever once debated? Because the top dogs didn’t want to talk about it. End of story.
House Speaker Michael Madigan introduced numerous pieces of legislation designed with Rauner in mind, including a tax surcharge on millionaires, which ended up as a nonbinding question on the November ballot.
Rauner railed repeatedly against extending the income tax hike, and Democrats had to back off. Instead, they opted to punt the ball until after the election. If Rauner had lost the primary to a weaker Republican, odds are that the tax hike extension would’ve had a better chance of passage. Of course, if Rauner goes on to defeat Gov. Pat Quinn, the massive fiscal hole the General Assembly has created will be his problem – which ultimately makes him a loser as well.
Rauner became almost a shadow governor this spring. His hand was seen everywhere. Cook County pension reform failed, many say, because Rauner pushed against it. The $1.1 billion end of session road construction/repair bill was reportedly only agreed to by Republicans after Rauner OK’d it, hoping to please the GOP-leaning road builders.
Senate President John Cullerton was another winner.
The Senate President’s electoral prowess meant once again that he could do pretty much anything he wanted. His 40 Democratic votes out of 59 total Senate seats gave him enough cushion to sit back and watch while Speaker Madigan struggled all year to deal with his own, smaller super-majority.
Cullerton stood his ground on the budget when the income tax hike extension fell apart and made sure his members’ top interests were taken care of, particularly with a small Medicaid expansion. He pushed back when Madigan tried to muscle through a major change in the way the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was administrated. He stood firm when pushed by Madigan to insert a requirement into the reauthorization of the court-stricken state eavesdropping law to require police to wear body cameras. He muscled through an innovative bill with his former chief of staff Sen. Andy Manar to fundamentally alter the way education is funded in Illinois.
And out of all the Democrats under the dome, he appeared to be the least rattled by Rauner’s primary win. Cullerton may not have always made the best decisions (particularly when it came to ultimately killing the eavesdropping bill), but he appears to be coming into his own as a far more confident leader.
Legislative Republicans did pretty well, too.
The weekend after the session ended, Kendall County Young Republican Chairman Brian Russell was busily scurrying to get himself onto the November ballot. He needed to collect 1,000 valid petition signatures in just three days to be appointed as the challenger to Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora. Russell said he hadn’t heard it, but word was that Team Rauner had pledged six figures to back Russell’s candidacy.
Holmes’ district is pretty solidly Democratic, but this does show you why legislative Republicans have strutted around with renewed confidence since the March primary. They finally have a candidate at the top of the ticket who will not only give the Democrats a run for their money, but who will ensure that their own candidates have enough cash to compete. Holmes wasn’t even on the Republicans’ radar. They simply didn’t have the resources to challenge her.
But if Rauner wins this November, Republican legislators will have to do something completely different – vote for some pretty distasteful things to support their GOP governor or risk his considerable ire. For over a decade, the Republicans often sat back and hit their red buttons when it came time to pass important bills. But they’ll finally have to help govern if Rauner is in the mansion. That spectacle right there would almost be worth seeing Rauner win.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.