Fight Or Flight — Attorney General Candidates On Impasse Politics

Democratic candidates for Attorney General. From left to right: Sharon Fairley, state Rep. Scott Drury, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, Aaron Goldstein, Renato Mariotti, former Gov. Pat Quinn, Nancy Rotering and Jessie Ruiz. View Slideshow 1 of 2
Democratic candidates for Attorney General. From left to right: Sharon Fairley, state Rep. Scott Drury, state Sen. Kwame Raoul, Aaron Goldstein, Renato Mariotti, former Gov. Pat Quinn, Nancy Rotering and Jessie Ruiz

How would contenders for the state’s top legal office have handled the budget stalemate?

One of the limitations of modern political debates is that candidates are usually only asked what they’ll do. But in this era of political dysfunction and governmental obstruction, it can be just as important to know what a candidate might choose not to do.

At a recent forum in Springfield, most of the Democrats seeking the nomination for attorney general gave a series of predictably orthodox answers to predictably orthodox questions. Whether the topic was immigration, abortion or protecting LGBTQ rights, the homogeneity of responses was such that candidate Jesse Ruiz, on at least three separate occasions, remarked on the lack of disagreement.

“As you’ve all heard, thank God we’re all Democrats,” he said in his closing statement. “We’re not that far apart on a lot of the issues.”

That is true. But posing the right questions to candidates outside of debates can reveal at least one topic on which they are not in agreement, and that goes for both Democrats and Republicans. It relates to one of the most consequential decisions taken by outgoing Attorney General Lisa Madigan during her 15 years in office. In keeping with our theme, the decision was not to do something — namely, not to respond more aggressively to the budget stalemate.

Madigan eventually changed course and put the weight of her office behind an effort to enforce the appropriations clause of the Illinois Constitution. But that came after well more than a year of a budgetary stalemate in Illinois government, at a financial cost of billions of dollars and a human cost for which there may never be a full accounting.

Looking back now, it was all so naïve. Media reports from summer 2015, when the budget impasse began, speculated that the crisis could last a week, perhaps months. What was not suggested — or apparently even contemplated — was that the state could limp along without a full budget for more than two years.

Madigan initially came out swinging, issuing dire warnings.

“If there’s not a budget in place, the Constitution and laws severely constrain the state’s authority to make payments to fund government operations and services,” Madigan said in an interview with NPR Illinois. “That is why we’ve seen the federal government and a number of other states shut down when they’re facing budget impasses.”

Rauner had been pushing the other way: “I want to make darn sure you guys are paid,” he told state employees at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. “It’s going to be a little bit of a battle, probably. I hope it’s not, but it might be.”

Rauner was right on two counts: It was a battle, but just a little bit.

On the second day of the new fiscal year, the AFSCME labor union filed a lawsuit seeking full payment for state employees. Madigan had already gone to court to clarify what other forms of state payments could be made — “critical services,” she said, like healthcare for children in state custody — but she resisted efforts to pay state employees.

A split decision among trial courts led to a hasty attempt to involve the Illinois Supreme Court, but the justices washed their hands of the matter. Paychecks were already going out, and by the end of July, a panel of lower-ranking appellate judges affirmed the decision to pay state employees.

Credit OFFICE OF ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL

“It’s very odd that we are all here and there remains no budget,” Madigan told reporters that August, before walking in a parade to the Illinois State Fair. She said she wanted the legislature and governor to agree on a budget. “Short of that,” she added, “it would be my argument that we are operating outside of the Constitution.”

That might have been her argument, but by that time, Madigan was no longer really making it in court. She wanted to let a tangentially related appeal play itself out, and to give policymakers time to resolve their differences.

A month went by. Then another. And another and another and another. There was a stopgap spending bill for the last six months of 2016, but the court-ordered payroll meant legislators could skate by without budgeting for salaries. Billions and billions of dollars were spent on a single judge’s order.

Finally, in January 2017, Madigan went back to court to try to undo the madness. She reasoned that without a real…

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