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Analysis: Budget vs. redistricting? Expect Illinois legislators to put re-election first

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2010 - Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar says, "Springfield is getting to be a little more like Washington: They want to have something to talk about on Election Day rather than get something done."

In this case, "getting something done" means figuring out some way to close a multi-billion-dollar budget gap. The gap is so big that the choices are tough: Enact huge and painful cuts to the state budget, including education, or raise taxes on constituents who already are reeling from the recession and have had it with political leaders they see as wasteful and ineffective.

With a general election just six months away, politics in Springfield is being driven by predictions about how constituents might react to their choices. Legislative leaders are enforcing strict discipline on their party members. For the Democrats in the House, that means not voting to support Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed tax hike unless a few Republicans take the plunge along with them. For Republicans, it means refusing to allow any party members, even those who face little or no electoral challenge, to support the tax hike.

In Illinois, like Washington, party leaders hold all the cards. It's a power that's been building in the state for the past three decades.

That was the last time the state had a governor with enough political muscle to bring together the legislative leaders, lock them in a room (at least figuratively) and keep them there until they had hammered out a budget that was balanced and realistic.

These days, no one is being locked in a room. There aren't even many meetings. Instead, the Four Tops -- the Springfield name for the Democratic and Republican party leaders in the House and Senate -- enabled by spendthrift, out-of-control or weak governors, have passed inadequate budget after inadequate budget.

Edgar, the Republican who served as governor during the 1980s, waged epic budget battles with the Legislature. But when Republican George Ryan was elected, followed four years later by Democrat Rod Blagojevich, all budget controls were off.

Both Ryan and Blagojevich were free-spending governors who didn't worry much about how to pay for all of the legislative pork lawmakers were sending home to their districts.

By the time Blagojevich was removed from office, Illinois' budget gap had grown to more than $10 billion. Toss in a national economic meltdown and suddenly the state was facing a budget deficit of more than $13 billion.

Closing a budget crater that big is likely to require some unpopular decisions that could result in a "throw out the bums" backlash against state leaders come November. So Illinois pols are most likely to choose a third option: pass some sort of patchwork budget to get through the next six months then come back after the election to craft a real solution to the budget crisis.

That's because the aftershocks of draconian budget cuts or a painful tax increase in 2010 could reverberate through the Democratic Party for the next 10 years. And Michael J. Madigan, the powerful Chicago Democrat who has been speaker of the Illinois House for 25 of the last 27 years, isn't about to let that happen, no matter how dire the state's budget crisis.

The risk is so acute because 2011 is a redistricting year. The legislative map will be redrawn in accordance with the 2010 census results.

Illinois' current system gives incumbent legislators the power to draw the new map. There are proposals for changing that, including the Illinois Fair Map Amendment drive being lead by the League of Women Voters and other good-government types. That amendment, among other things, calls for public hearings and a two-thirds majority vote for the Legislature to approve a new map. The amendment could be on the November ballot if proponents can collect enough signatures on petitions before the May 2 deadline.

If the good government types don't succeed in changing the system, the 2011 map could be drawn by the Democrats with little input from anyone else.

In Illinois, he who wields political power waves the gerrymandering wand. If the Democrats manage to keep control of the Senate and House (both have solid Democratic majorities, 37-22 in the Senate and 70-48 in the House) as well as the governor's office (this one is less of a slam dunk -- polls show Republican Bill Brady ahead of the incumbent Quinn), they control the redistricting process, which means they can draw a map likely to keep them in control of the Legislature for the next decade.

Any map could be challenged in the courts, but Illinois' Supreme Court currently has a four-three Democratic majority. Two Democrats and two Republican are up for "retention" this year. They run unopposed but must garner a 60 percent vote to keep their job on the court.

In past decades, a Republican governor could veto an unfair map drawn by Democratic legislators. When that happened, the map-drawing responsibility went to a commission of four Republicans and four Democrats. If those commissioners couldn't agree -- and they never did -- the power went to one Republican or one Democrat, a "tie-breaker" commission member chosen at random.

Republicans won that power once. They drew the map that gave them a majority in the House for the 1995-1996 session, the one session when Madigan lost his power to rule the Illinois House.

Cindy Richards, a freelance writer in Chicago, has long covered Illinois politics.