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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

Lawmakers Point Fingers; Session Ends Without Budget Agreement

NPR Illinois
House Speaker Michael Madigan, left, speaks with reporters on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

The Illinois General Assembly ended its annual legislative session Wednesday night without agreeing on a state budget.

Top Democrats and Republicans blamed each other, reflecting the main political divide in Springfield that has played out over the two yearlong budget impasse. But this spring's budget failure exposed an additional set of fault lines -- among Democrats.

The Senate spent much of the past five months in bipartisan negotiations — attempting to strike a "grand bargain" that both satisfied Gov. Bruce Rauner's economic agenda and adequately funded Illinois government.

When those talks broke down, Senate Democrats decided to go it mostly alone, passing the bills they say they negotiated with Rauner and the Republcans.

The grand bargain became petite, but it did include a series of tax hikes, and that seems to have overwhelmed the House Democrats.

Rauner made his economic agenda a precondition for negotiations, and House Speaker Michael Madigan said fellow Democrats are concerned about how they saw Rauner working with the Senate. 

“He would negotiate, then back away, negotiate, backin' away. There’s a concern," Madigan said. "They just don’t have a high level of confidence in how the governor has conducted himself."

Senate Democrats passed both a budget bill and a variety of tax hikes to pay for it this month, but House Democrats weren't sure how to respond to the governor – so they didn’t even vote on the Senate plan  

"It is our decision that more work needs to be done on our budget proposal,” said Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago. He said his colleagues had "concerns" and blamed their failure to vote on a budget on Rauner — and the governor's intervention in grand bargain negotiations.

"A lot of folks have watched what has happened in the Senate, where they thought they had reached an agreement,” he added, “and, at the end of that agreement, they found out the governor was pulling votes off the bill and then attacking the very people who had worked on the compromise, voting for things he had previously supported."

So instead of passing a budget by the statutory May 31 deadline, Harris says House Democrats will convene a series of hearings this month.

The governor was not amused. "Please, members of the General Assembly in the majority,” he said, “please do not travel around the state holding sham hearings about a balanced budget."

Rauner blamed Democrats for failure to get his budget proposal enacted — and for wrecking the grand bargain.

"Um, Speaker Madigan and the House Democrats sent a lot of special interest groups, a lot of lobbyists over, pressured the Senate Democrats very harshly, and they killed the deal,” Rauner claimed. “They gave up at the end. And the grand bargain failed."

Rauner, however, did the same thing to Republicans, as Democratic Senate President John Cullerton pointed out.

"He hijacked the grand bargain,” he said. “He came in in the middle of the process, told the Republicans to vote no."

Cullerton says the same thing happened in the House.

"Republicans didn't vote for anything, with some exceptions,” the Senate President said, “and, as a result, we don't have a budget."

Meanwhile, the government functions most pinched by the lack of a budget will continue to be squeezed. Programs for vulnerable residents will continue to shut down. State universities will continue laying off staff. And schools will be left to wonder whether they'll have enough money to open their doors next August.

Everything about this might sound familiar, but there is at least one difference this year: Rank-and-file legislators are increasingly frustrated with the constant political attacks by the leaders, parties, and outside groups. And they're beginning to say so in public.

"I understand that that is happening outside of this building, but we have got to stay focused on the goal," said Rep. Sara Wojcicki-Jiminez, R-Springfield. She said Rauner's constant attacks on Madigan are "not helpful."

"It would not be my approach,” she said. “Now is the time, through today and through the end of next month, for us to build the bridges and not burn them."

Wojcicki-Jiminez is not alone in that sentiment. Yet Democrats and Republicans don't even agree on just what in Illinois needs fixing. And if the parties don't agree on the question, it's hard to see how they'll come to terms on an answer.

Brian Mackey covers Illinois state government and politics from the WUIS Statehouse bureau. He was previously A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. He can be reached at (217) 206-6020.