Editorial: We must make lawmakers accountable to the public ahead of their party leaders

In a speech to suburban business and government leaders Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner all but promised that the state Senate's on-again-off-again Grand Bargain budget compromise will be ready for prime time "in the next couple weeks."

The prediction came in some contrast to another of the governor's pronouncements to a luncheon audience in Elk Grove Village - that solving the budget impasse, as important as that is, is secondary to changing the culture of government in Springfield. The distinction may be splitting hairs to some degree. No reasonable observer would question the priority of changing how business gets done at the Capitol. But there's equal reason to wonder what business there will be to be done if key government and human service functions continue to be starved by the lack of a spending plan.

Rauner's optimism comes on the heels this week of yet another entry in the balanced-budget sweepstakes, this one from Hawthorn Woods Republican state Sen. Dan McConchie. It calls for 10 percent across-the-board spending cuts, a property tax freeze and other reductions but no revenue increases. Although predicated on the not-unreasonable notion that government ought not get more money until it has shown it can make the efficiencies and sacrifices everyday Illinois citizens and businesses are making, the plan has virtually no chance of surviving a Democratic-controlled General Assembly, so it's tempting not to take it seriously. But in the context of the governor's prediction, one hopes McConchie's approach - that any "Grand Bargain" must include spending controls as well as program reforms and tax increases - is at least part of the discussion supposedly so close to fruition.

And that discussion, let's not forget, also depends on a state House that, as Rauner himself acknowledged, has shown no interest in serious compromise.

So, amid all these developments, it was the reflection of a speaker who followed the governor at Wednesday's event sponsored by the Greater O'Hare Association that particularly resonated. Elliot Richardson, founder and CEO of the Chicago-based Small Business Advocacy Council, described a lobbying approach emphasizing two themes - nonpartisanship and engagement.

Serious progress, Richardson asserted, occurs in Springfield only when interests separate themselves from the constraints of party loyalty and when they apply sincere, direct engagement. Individuals and agencies have to show the kinds of numbers that will make lawmakers see that their personal interests are better served by listening to the public than by doing only what their party leaders order.

The budget impasse is a product of the opposite perception. Experience teaches us to be skeptical about whether a truly viable compromise will emerge from the governor's office's work with the Senate, but if one does, it's greatest hope - and that of all those agencies and citizens hungering for a state budget - will depend on that shift in constituencies from political leaders to the public being served. And, not until we see that shift will we see any change in the way business gets done in Springfield.

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