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Social mediation: Politicians bypass press, control message

In this Nov. 16, 2016 file photo, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to reporters in Springfield, Ill.

The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — Time is running out for the 99th Illinois General Assembly to do what it has failed to do so far throughout its two-year term: pass a comprehensive state budget that will earn the signature of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Lawmakers return to Springfield on Monday for a two-day lame-duck session. That’s traditionally a time when outgoing legislators can help push through controversial measures, such as a temporary income tax increase that was approved in 2011 and has since partially rolled back.

It’s widely acknowledged that it will take a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to begin stabilizing the state’s shaky finances. Rauner has also insisted throughout the first two years of his term that any long-term budget deal include policy changes he says would boost economic growth and restore confidence in the state’s political system.

Whether lawmakers in both parties and both chambers of the General Assembly can forge a compromise that meets all those requirements remains uncertain.

Rauner acknowledged during an unrelated appearance in Carbondale on Friday that he has been briefed on discussions between Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, about a possible budget deal that’s in the works.

“I’m heartened by that,” Rauner said of the talks. “I’m optimistic that Democrats and Republicans are negotiating in good faith to come up with changes to our system so it’s not broken anymore.”

The governor said it would be premature for him to comment on specifics because “a lot of the detail is still in flux.”

Spokespeople for Cullerton and Radogno declined to comment on the discussions, which were first reported Thursday by the Capitol Fax blog.

The components being discussed include an income tax increase, a short-term property tax freeze, changes to the state’s workers’ compensation laws and public pension systems, and term limits for legislative leaders, according to the Capitol Fax report.

Also being discussed is a new proposal to overhaul the way Illinois funds elementary and secondary education, an issue lawmakers have been working on for several years without success.

There is bipartisan agreement that Illinois relies too heavily on local property taxes to fund schools and does a poor job of directing state money to the school districts that need it most.

A commission that Rauner convened is working to produce a proposal before its Feb. 1 deadline, but other discussions are taking place on the sidelines.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, a member of the commission and a leading voice for his caucus on education funding, couldn’t say whether a new school funding reform plan might be introduced during the lame-duck session.

“I’m not certain that we’re there yet, but we’re closer today than we were yesterday,” Barickman said Friday of a bipartisan agreement on school funding. “I continue to sense that the majority of the people involved in this have a sincere desire to fix this.”

Past reform efforts have run aground due to the political difficulty of passing a plan that shifts money from some districts to others and the cost of trying to prevent any district from losing out under a new funding formula.

Passing an education funding bill during the lame-duck is perhaps less pressing because, unlike higher education, social services and other state operations, elementary and secondary schools are funded through June. The stopgap deal that was funding other operations expired when the calendar turned to 2017.

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, another member of the education funding commission and a point man for Democrats on the issue, said that regardless of whether it’s during the lame-duck session or after the new General Assembly is sworn in Wednesday, fixing the state’s flawed school funding formula has to be a party of a final budget compromise.

“It has to be accomplished, one way or the other,” Manar said.

Neither he nor Barickman could comment on the wider discussions between Cullerton and Radogno, and both said they would reserve judgment on any deal until all the details are known.

No legislation representing components of the reported deal had been filed as of Friday.

Even if the Senate can approve an agreement Monday or Tuesday, its prospects in the House remain dim.

During their fall veto session, Democratic and Republican state representatives joined together to pass a resolution opposing any tax increases during the lame-duck session.