One of the most unusual Illinois veto sessions I’ve ever seen wrapped up last week.
The two-week session was supposed to be about whether infuriated legislative Republicans would abandon Gov. Bruce Rauner in droves over his signature of HB40, which provides government funding of abortions for state workers and women on Medicaid. The potential for drama was high, but nobody was prepared for what actually happened.
The veto session kicked off on Oct. 24 under a dark and unexpected cloud of accusations when a group of more than 100 women signed an open letter claiming misogyny is “alive and well” in Illinois politics, particularly at the Statehouse. The women leveled a series of specific accusations against unnamed men who used their power to humiliate, subjugate or prey on women. The uproar was immediate and intense.
Legislative leaders promised quick action, but it soon became apparent that there were other problems besides the widespread allegations of a culture of harassment. Illinois hasn’t had a Legislative Inspector General since 2015, ostensibly because the four leaders couldn’t agree on who that should be.
During the week between the two scheduled veto session weeks, the House held a committee hearing in Chicago designed to highlight Speaker Michael Madigan’s attempt to address the sexual harassment issue. But the hearing’s substance was completely overshadowed by surprise testimony from crime victim advocate Denise Rotheimer, who claimed that Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, had used his position as the chief sponsor of her bill to sexually harass her for months.
Perhaps even worse, Rotheimer claimed that she had tried to report her allegations against Sen. Silverstein almost a year earlier and nothing had been done. Why? Because only an inspector general is empowered by law to investigate such matters and, conveniently enough, the General Assembly didn’t have one. After saying they couldn’t find anybody for over two years who would accept the job or who was acceptable to all four legislative leaders, the powers that be all of a sudden found somebody to accept the post on an interim basis.
Aside from the fact that the people in charge don’t like having anybody around nosing into their business, this is typical Illinois stuff. Nothing ever gets done until an existential crisis finally forces a decision. Unpaid pension liabilities have to be swamping the state before a solution is proposed. A comprehensive alternative energy plan can only be enacted as part of a bailout to prevent a couple of unionized nuclear power plants from closing. Hundreds of thousands of people have to suffer and universities have to be on the brink of closure before we get a state budget.
Too often, nothing becomes a priority until an issue becomes a crisis.
As a result, Gov. Rauner’s attempt to remain relevant was almost completely pushed to the side.
During his first two years in office, the Republican Rauner was remarkably successful at preventing all but a tiny handful overrides of his dozens of vetoes, despite Democratic super majorities in both the House and the Senate.
But then things began to fall apart this past summer, when his vetoes of the budget, a tax hike and more money for local 911 emergency centers were all overridden. And then he signed HB40 and furious Republican legislators vowed to “vote their districts” in the upcoming veto session.
Instead of trying to keep everyone in line on every veto, Gov. Rauner and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin focused almost all their energy on just a few bills. Their number one priority was stopping an override of legislation to ban municipal governments from creating local “right to work” zones. Nothing energizes this governor more than trimming the power and influence of organized labor.
So, Rauner looked the other way while huge numbers of Republicans joined Democrats to override 17 of his vetoes. As long as they stuck with him on “right to work” and a couple of other bills, he didn’t squawk.
But that meant he was clobbered by one of his top political nemeses, Comptroller Susana Mendoza. Rauner had vetoed Mendoza-backed legislation to require monthly reports of how many unpaid bills were at each state agency. The two officials are bitter rivals, so the bill may have been politically motivated, but the veto was even more so.
The override motion passed the House unanimously and just three Republicans voted with the governor in the Senate. Yet, because he stopped a few overrides that he truly cared about, Rauner could proclaim victory, at least in his own mind.
Like I said, it was an unusual session.