SPRINGFIELD — For the first time in seven months, the small group of people who could bring an end to the state's epic budget impasse are finally going to meet.
But, rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say Tuesday's pow-wow with Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature's four leaders may be more of a public spectacle than a productive meeting.
"So there's a meeting in Springfield. Great," said state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton. "What I want to see is a common-sense plan from the governor to lead us out of this impasse that he created."
"I do not have high hopes for the meeting," added state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. "It's going to be theater."
The 2:30 p.m. meeting was conceived by a coalition of good-government groups as a way to jump-start budget negotiations. Along with the first-year Republican governor, others attending the sit-down are House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago; Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago; House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs; and, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.
Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly have been deadlocked over a spending blueprint for months, leaving the state operating without a formal budget in place since the start of the fiscal year July 1.
The impasse has left social service agencies scrambling to stay open, universities without their state aid and towns and other organizations without access to the cash they rely on for services such as snowplowing and 911 emergency telephone service.
The vitriol between Rauner and the Democrats has been so toxic the leaders haven't met as a group since May.
The groups had wanted the talks to be in public, but Rauner and the leaders agreed little would be accomplished in such a forum.
Tuesday's session instead will start out with public statements by the five leaders. The plan then is for them to close off public access in order to hash out their differences behind closed doors, the way their predecessors have negotiated for decades.
Just as Rauner and Madigan have been pointing fingers at each other during the gridlock, local lawmakers also have taken sides in the fight.
"A meeting is better than no meeting," said state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. "The governor has laid out a plan that balances the budget and improves the economy. The Democrats haven't done that."
"Madigan's aim is to watch the governor and Republicans be roasted because of this overtime," Righter said. "Just because Madigan is at the table doesn't mean he's ready to negotiate."
Democrats complain that Rauner's insistence on altering collective bargaining laws and weakening labor unions is too extreme and should not be tied to getting a budget in place.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said it is imperative the meeting "brings reasonable solutions to the budget crisis we face."
"The price of inaction is far too high," Hutchinson said. "I hear every day from people who are hurting — real people who have nowhere to turn. I am hopeful the leaders take this opportunity seriously and bargain in good faith to end this impasse once and for all."
Forby said the blame for the budget impasse rests on Rauner's shoulders.
"This governor shut down student aid, cut off our colleges and universities and vetoed efforts to get gas tax money back to local communities whose motorists actually pay the taxes," Forby said.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said he hopes the meeting provides a launching point for resolving the stalemate.
"Any time you are talking, it's a good thing," he said. "Do I look for a lightning rod coming out this meeting? No. Is it a springboard for further talks? Yes."