BY MADELEINE DOUBEK
While Illinois continues to unravel and the state of the state keeps sinking into the depths of a historic budget stalemate, there are a few signs of hope for the future.
After a flare-up last week between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic supermajority leaders, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton Monday sounded more conciliatory about the prospects of another attempt at cutting some pension debt. At the City Club of Chicago, Cullerton noted House Speaker Michael Madigan has supported pension changes previously, and said he and Rauner had agreed on the outlines of a legislative proposal that would offer state workers a contractual choice between compounding annual salary increases or a pension based on a full salary.
Rauner announced the formation of a state agency, the Department of Innovation and Technology, to bring state government out of the Stone Age and into the digital era. And, more quietly in recent days, came news that the “c” word still exists in state political and government vocabulary.
“C” as in compromise. Consensus. Collaboration. Cooperation.
Democratic state Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago and Republican state Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon recently announced the formation of the Illinois Future Caucus, a group of bipartisan millennial lawmakers who intend to build trust with each other and find topics and areas of agreement so that they might work together.
“I think everybody in the Future Caucus understands that if we can build relationships and trust,” Demmer said in an interview, “we’re more likely to be able to get things done.”
A profound absence of trust is what led to dueling press statements and disagreement about possible pension legislation last week and what has underscored the many months of state budget impasse that continues to endanger Illinoisans.
The Illinois Future Caucus has 12 founding members, including three Republicans, and is the 12th such in the nation. All the future caucuses are supported by the Millennial Action Project, founded by Steve Olikara. He noted the cost of inaction falls most heavily on the younger generation, who will be weighed down by the debt their forebears loaded upon them.
Olikara noted at a press event that millennials make up more than 25 percent of Illinois’ population, are primarily independent and are “fair game for both parties as long as the two parties are becoming more entrenched in gridlock and conflict, and becoming more and more responsible for inaction and disservice to the younger generation.”
Guzzardi, who like Demmer became active in politics at a young age, told reporters, “There’s never been a better time for an idea like this. When I talk to my constituents, people are angry; people are frustrated. They’re just mad at state government’s inability to sit down like grownups and fix the problems were facing. To people who live in my community and Representative Demmer’s community, that doesn’t accomplish anything.”
That said, neither Guzzardi nor Demmer are offering to jump into the budget gulf and build a bridge. They’re young, but apparently not that idealistic. They do, however, believe they can collaborate on things like criminal justice reform, the sharing economy that has fueled start-ups like Lyft and Airbnb, higher education and STEM curricula, business regulation and innovation.
“What we’re looking for here is an opportunity to develop a relationship so we can begin to have conversations,” Demmer said. Caucus members want to work to “find the issues where we have common ground that will help Illinoisans today, but also help Illinoisans as our generation becomes older and starts raising kids and has families and maybe lives in Illinois for years to come.”
Demmer’s is a rural district in Northwestern Illinois. He tells me he’s heard about the budget impasses from a variety of citizens who have interactions with the state and have been concerned about funding for programs, or being paid for work for the state. He said he encourages citizens to talk with all their elected officials about the impasse, tries to explain the reasons why this negotiation is so difficult and prepare them for the pain that lies ahead in that amorphous future when a budget deal finally brings spending cuts and revenue increases.
Meanwhile, he and Guzzardi and 10 others are hoping to lay the foundation for a more perfect political union in Illinois’ future.
“I think that’s one thing that probably we all have in common, “ Demmer said. “I think everybody in the Future Caucus understands that if we can build relationships and trust, we’re more likely to be able to get things done.”
Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois