Real Government Shutdown May Be Only Way To End Budget Crisis

My how our expectations of our government have fallen over the past year.

A year ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner rejected nearly all of the Democrats' budget, citing its $4 billion imbalance. While acknowledging a need for more tax revenue to get state finances in line, Rauner said he would not discuss those options until Democrats passed government and business reforms that made up his Turnaround Agenda.

Passing a piecemeal budget was not an option, Rauner said, because it would take the pressure off for reform.

This was when House Speaker Michael Madigan began holding weekly press conferences at the Capitol, repeating his pledge to work "professionally and cooperatively" with Rauner, emphasizing that the House was in "continuous session" and chastising the governor at every turn for attempting to bring "non-budget issues" from his agenda into budget talks.

In the months to come, Madigan would sharpen his criticism of Rauner and his policies, which Madigan said sought to revive a vision of government that predated the New Deal. Rauner's ultimate plan, Madigan said, was to "lower wages and the standard of living of the middle class."

I can assure you that no one with a background in state government ever envisioned we'd be where we're at today, with Rauner and Democrats pushing for a temporary plan to allow them to continue their protracted feud through January. That's because those who know the Illinois Constitution are familiar with its appropriations clause:

The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State. Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed funds estimated by the General Assembly to be available during that year.

Illinois Constitution, Article VIII, section 2 (b)

"All expenditures of public funds" includes the paychecks of all Illinois state government employees. In early summer 2015, the notion of paychecks halted for thousands of state workers -- leading to a shutdown of state government -- meant that the Rauner-Madigan standoff could last at most a few months. Public pressure when state facilities closed would be too great and the damage too obvious for an extended impasse. (Rauner cannily had headed off another potential source of untenable public pressure by signing the budget bill authorizing funding of K-12 education, thus ensuring elementary and high schools would open on schedule in the fall.)

But we did not anticipate the bizarre legal crossfire that would ensue in courtrooms in Cook and St. Clair counties in which the Rauner administration and organized labor became allies in the fight to ensure that state employee paychecks continued even without a state budget to authorize them.

The fight ended in a St. Clair County judge's ruling that failure to issue paychecks would violate protected contractual agreements. Attorney General Lisa Madigan had argued that issuing payroll without a budget appropriation was illegal, but she opted to not pursue an appeal after the Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear the case on an expedited schedule.

So the "government shutdown" didn't happen in a sudden, widespread burst. Instead, it slowly crept through social services providers for the disabled and elderly, who stopped receiving payment for contracted work. Public universities were left to fend for themselves, and by winter were facing severe hardship.

At the same time, roughly 90 percent of the spending from FY 2015 was continuing because it was covered by continuing appropriations passed by the General Assembly or was required under court order. With the governor and lawmakers having neither made spending cuts nor approved new taxes, state spending was on auto-pilot and exceeding revenue by $13 million a day.

Now our leaders are working on competing stopgap plans to keep government minimally functioning through the end of the year.

Folks, what we've come to call the "Illinois budget impasse" is on the verge of becoming standard operating procedure in Illinois. This state can't afford seven more months of operating with no plan, or with a "plan" whose goal is merely to let state government limp through another half-year.

The end to this crazy of Illinois non-governance may have been written in an Illinois State Supreme Court decision in March that, in essence, said the St. Clair County ruling that allowed continuous state payroll without budget authorization was wrong.

In a case in which AFSCME Council 31 sought to recoup raises that had been promised to its members in 2011, the court cited "a well-defined and dominant public policy under which multiyear collective bargaining agreements are subject to the appropriation power of the State, a power which may only be exercised by the General Assembly."

So collective bargaining agreements -- union employment contracts -- don't supersede the appropriations clause of the state constitution. The opposite of the St. Clair County ruling of last July.

This would appear to be an invitation for Attorney General Madigan to revive her effort to halt state payroll pending approval of a state budget. So far, Madigan's office has said only that it is reviewing the decision.

I don't like the idea of bringing financial hardship onto state employees, and missing even a single paycheck will do that for many. But the new front in the budget battle that now has opened -- that of finding a way to extend the impasse through the end of the year -- makes me think that a real government shutdown is the only thing that can force a real solution.

Lisa Madigan, of course, is the daughter of one of the combatants in the budget struggle, but it's hard to make a case that her reiterating her original position tips the scale politically to her father or hurts Rauner's position. An election season with state government in chaos wouldn't serve Madigan's Democrats or Rauner's Republicans well.

And besides, I really don't care about the politics. That's what got us here. Rauner and Madigan have been gambling for a year now that they'd win the public opinion jackpot if they just outlasted their opponent. They both have lost and Illinois can't take another six months of trying.

Here's hoping the attorney general's "review" leads her back to court on this one.