In a crowded college dining hall brightened by white linen tablecloths, a Chamber of Commerce official delivered remarks into a bouquet of microphones on the lectern before him.
But the microphones, from Chicago television and radio stations, were turned off. Members of the media were eagerly awaiting the next speaker, whose words carry more weight than those of virtually any other official in state government.
That speaker, Michael Madigan, chairman of the Democratic Party and speaker of the Illinois House for 27 of the last 29 years, stood quietly, waiting for his cue to take the stage and address more than 300 invited guests at Elmhurst College.
It was a rare public appearance for Madigan, made even more unusual by the locale — one of the state’s most Republican-leaning counties — and the fact that Madigan was at the college’s governmental forum as a favor to a former Republican adversary, Lee Daniels, now an adjunct faculty member and special adviser to the college president.
Daniels shook hands with Madigan and the two exchanged compliments, a sharp contrast to 1995 when Daniels wrested control of the House for one term and Madigan refused to move his belongings out of the speaker’s office until the last minute.
In his remarks, Madigan acknowledged the state’s budget crisis, glancing at a folded piece of paper and occasionally bumping the cluster of microphones as he gestured with his hands.
If those in attendance were hoping for a glimpse into his strategic mind, they may have left disappointed, although he did entertain them with behind-the-scenes stories of former governors. He said George Ryan once pulled the then-Senate President, Pate Philip, into a separate room to berate him for resisting Ryan’s bricks-and-mortar spending program.
“There was a lot of screaming and shouting and they both came back and sat down and Pate said, ‘Well, governor, there will be enough votes to pass your bill,’” Madigan said. “That was George’s method.”
Madigan blamed both Democrats and Republicans for spending Illinois into its current fiscal crisis, but said the budget that was passed last year with bipartisan support in the House was a good start in restoring the state’s economic health.
“Bear with us,” he said when asked about the state’s inability to pay its bills to social service agencies.
The state has more than $4 billion in unpaid bills, according to the Illinois comptroller’s office, and a pension liability of about $85 billion, and more cuts are expected when Gov. Pat Quinn presents his budget next month.
“We’ve got huge budget problems in this state,” Madigan said. “Why? Well, there was overspending in the past, and many people engaged in the overspending. It wasn’t just one or two people.”
Even though Madigan blamed the shortfalls in part on Republicans, Democrats have held majorities in the House and Senate and controlled the governor’s mansion since 2003. Most budgets, including those that delayed or skipped pension payments, have been passed primarily with Democrats’ votes.
Asked whether he should bear greater blame for the state’s financial ills, having served in Illinois government in an influential position for nearly 30 years, Madigan said it took more than one person to drive Illinois into a pattern of spending beyond its means.
In flusher times, party leaders and the governor cut pork-heavy budget deals behind closed doors. To bring lawmakers on board — often at midnight on the final day of a legislative session — the budget included hundreds of their demands, from road improvements to new fire engines and playgrounds. Madigan said spending from both sides of the aisle helped put the state in the red.
He lauded last year’s legislative session, when House members from both parties helped pass a budget that allocated $2 billion less than Quinn had requested.
“The next good step would be to do that again under even more difficult circumstances,” Madigan said. If we can convince the budget-makers to live within our means, we would be taking some significant steps to fiscal solvency, but it’s not going to be done overnight.”