ELMHURST, Ill. — Illinois is in for a long haul when it comes to pulling itself out of its financial mess, but lawmakers made a good start by passing a budget for this fiscal year that was $2 billion below the amount requested by Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan said Tuesday during a speech a week before the legislature returns to Springfield for its spring session.
Madigan is arguably the most powerful man in Springfield, with the ability to make or break deals. But anyone hoping to find out specifically where he stands on some of the state's most urgent issues wouldn't have learned it from his address at Elmhurst College's Annual Government Forum.
Changing future pension benefits for current state employees would make an interesting national debate and ultimately could be decided by the courts, he told a packed room. Illinois' underfunded pension liability now exceeds $85 billion and lawmakers already have changed benefits for future employees to help reduce the costs.
But Madigan didn't mention that he had introduced legislation along with House Minority Leader Tom Cross to create a three-tiered pension system for current employees, and wouldn't address reporters' questions afterward whether there are enough Republican and Democratic votes to bring the bill to the House floor.
School districts don't pay into teachers' pension systems like other employers do, leaving that obligation to the state — accounting for half of the $4 billion the state pays into five pension systems annually, he complained. He said later that it would be reasonable to ask them to pay, but would not say whether anyone was planning to introduce legislation to force them to do so.
He noted that he helped establish a spending cap for state government and pass a budget that was $2 billion below the amount requested by Quinn — and said lawmakers should be prepared to do it again, explaining "budget makers in Springfield must learn to live within their means."
But he gave no examples of where the state could trim expenses and didn't address whether the state should borrow more money to help pay a backlog of millions of dollars in unpaid bills owed to vendors.
"There's a limit to how far you can raise taxes; there's a limit as to how much you want to cut," Madigan said, noting the state's support of education and social services. "It's easy to say cut but when you take out the knife ... not so easy to do."
Madigan has a reputation for not revealing too much and that comes as no surprise to longtime political watchers.
"You don't play in the big leagues as long as he has by giving anything away," said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University. "He has made a career out of being very hard to read. If there was a world series of poker for politicians he would be the overwhelming favorite."
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said it should have been clear where Madigan stood on the main issues he discussed because the Democrat helped pass legislation dealing with those issues — the budget, education reform, workers' and unemployment compensative and pension reform.
Former Republican House Speaker Lee Daniels, who serves as special assistant to the president for government and community relations at Elmhurst College, said he found Madigan's speech "very informative, very straightforward and non-evasive."
"He talked to us in an intellectual and academic sense because we are an academic institution, and I think he did that very well," said Daniels, who served in the legislature for 32 years. "He didn't try to sugarcoat (the issues) and he didn't try to snow anyone with an intellectual discussion."
After being asked to describe the governors he'd worked with over the years, Madigan told the crowd that Quinn was "well-intentioned" and that they were working through their many differences. True to form, he didn't outright say whether he thought Quinn was a good governor.
Instead, he called him a former political "gadfly" who became governor. Quinn ascended to the position after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges and impeached by lawmakers, but won the election outright in 2010.
Quizzed by reporters after his speech, Madigan would not say whether he thought the state should make the recent 66 percent income tax increase permanent, saying he couldn't address that until it's set to expire in 2015. He wouldn't discuss his own re-election campaign, brushing off questions about a potential Republican challenger in the general election by saying "drive through the neighborhood" to see how much support Madigan already has.
Madigan has been speaker since 1983, except for two years when Republicans took the majority and Daniels held that position.
The Chicago Democrat has been a state representative since 1971 and built his power through political clout in Chicago, the money he raises and doles out to favored politicians and his ability to kill legislation. He controls who sits on which committee and which committee handles each bill. He can block virtually any legislative proposal and, when he wants to, can pass nearly anything out of the House.
Associated Press Political Writer Christopher Wills in Springfield contributed to this story.