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Illinois Issues: Mike Madigan And The ‘Party Of Economic Opportunity’

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on the cover of Illinois Issues Magazine in 1988.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on the cover of Illinois Issues Magazine in 1988. WUIS / Illinois Issues

Editor’s note:  This interview from 1988 with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan came to our attention after a caller who identified herself as being with the Illinois Policy Institute contacted us looking for audio from the interview, which it appeared in Illinois Issues when it was a print publication. We don’t have a recording of the interview. We pointed the caller in the direction of former Illinois Issues Statehouse Bureau chief Michael Klemens, who conducted the interview, if she wanted to continue looking for it. Of course, a few of us on the news staff then read the interview, which focused on tax policy and the state’s economic climate, and found it interesting.

At the time, Madigan was opposed to an income tax increase proposed by then-Gov. James R. Thompson. The plan wasn’t called for a vote in the House, and many viewed this as Madigan killing it off. In the interview, the speaker voiced concerns over the state’s economic climate.

Madigan went on to push a temporary tax increase through the House on a party-line vote in a single day in 1989.

Jump forward to the present. Illinois’ economy and fiscal standing have changed drastically. For instance, the state’s manufacturing sector has at least 300,000 fewer people working in it than it did 25 years ago. Illinois is still struggling to fully recover from the Great Recession. At the same time, the state’s financial obligations are staggering. If nothing changes, the budget deficit is projected to be $7.8 billion by the end of the current fiscal year. The backlog of unpaid bills is expected to reach $14 billion. The unfunded liability for public employee pensions is estimated to be $111 billion.

In this climate, Madigan has said that a tax increase and spending cuts will be needed to balance the state budget. He has proposed a higher tax on individual income greater than $1 million. He has also suggested that the state’s leaders consider putting the income tax rates back to where they were before the recent temporary income tax increase stepped down in 2015. “A good place to begin … would be the level we were at before the income tax expired,” Madigan said during an appearance at the City Club of Chicago last year. “And starting there, you can go in whatever direction you want to go.”

As part of our decision to run this 1988 interview again, Brian Mackey sat down with Klemens to get some context on what was happening at the time. 

Klemens says that in some ways the roles of Madigan and a Republican governor —Thompson at the time and now Gov. Bruce Rauner — have been reversed. The House speaker is now making the case for a tax increase, and Rauner, with his warnings about damaging the state’s business climate, is playing the part once cast by Madigan.  However, Rauner has said repeatedly that he is open to raising taxes if the increase is paired with some items from his Turnaround Agenda, which is viewed by many as friendly to business and hostile to unions. 

While Madigan’s stances on various tax proposals have shifted over the years, Klemens says his belief system and political style do not seem to have changed. 

“At his core, Madigan is … not an extreme anything. He’s not on the liberal end of the spectrum, and he’s not a big taxer,” Klemens says. Because of this, Klemens says that before Rauner took office and started pushing anti-union measures, he thought the two would work well together. “I thought he and Rauner would get along famously. How wrong I was.”

The tax hike was dead on June 29 when Gov. James R. Thompson and the four legislative leaders appeared for what was billed as a “live summit meeting” on Lt. Gov. George H. Ryan’s cable television program. The five leaders used the appearance to explain their positions. House Speaker Michael J. Madigan suggested lawmakers should be cautious about taking money from constituents’ pockets. Later he summed up the legislative session: “Some people may not get everything they want. Some people may walk away and say they could have done more. They could have done better. But that’s not the nature of a legislative session, the nature of a legislative process. Never should someone walk away and say I got everything I wanted. That’s just not the nature of what we do.”

House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels responded, “I think the people of Illinois have a right to expect everything they want. I think that this Assembly will go down in history as failing to meet a major request of people, and that’s to deal with the issues of the day, when we have a system that’s ranked number 36 in mental health delivery in the U.S. and the problems of Chicago schools, and we refused to address those. This system is not compassionate and caring.” In case you‘ve been out of Illinois for 20 years, Madigan is the Chicago Democrat; Daniels the suburban Republican. And Madigan has gotten the credit or blame, depending on one’s point of view, for killing Thompson’s tax increase. He confounded those pushing for the hike when they could not get him to call the question in the House. Why? Madigan does not declare his motives, but here’s a sampling of speculation: 

Madigan dislikes Thompson and wants to keep him weak.

Madigan wants to elect a Democratic governor in 1990 so that he can again draw the maps when 1992 legislative redistricting rolls around.

Madigan wants to ensure that whoever is mayor of Chicago after the 1989 and 1991 elections must deal with him.

Madigan fears the impact of Democrat-turned-Republican Ed Vrdolyak’s anti-tax talk in the campaign against Aurelia Pucinski and other Chicago Democrats.

Madigan wants to succeed George Dunne as president of the Cook County Board, a race in which he could face Vrdolyak.

Madigan himself is conservative and represents a conservative district.

Illinois Issues Statehouse bureau chief Mike Klemens asked Madigan his reasons in an interview in Madigan's Chicago law offices on August 4. Madigan’s responses offer insight. They are not conclusive. The speaker says Democrats must avoid a “tax and spend” label. He criticizes Thompson. He talks about business climate and limited government. As more than one Republican has said, he sounded more like a Republican than Daniels.  

Klemens: Gov. Thompson tried and failed again this year to raise taxes. He said Mike Madigan killed the tax increase. Could you outline your position for our readers? 

Madigan: The people of the state of Illinois killed Gov. Thompson’s request for a tax increase. My view was that we should not increase the Illinois income tax by 40 percent because we had enjoyed substantial revenue growth in the prior months, so that as we prepared the budget for the current fiscal year we had $700 million of new money available for the ongoing services of the state of Illinois. My position is very simply that the state is like any household in the state; it ought to live within its means. It ought to work to balance its budget by holding down the level of expenditure and not always raising the level of taxation.    

Klemens: How did you arrive at that position? What kinds of things did you weigh and to whom did you talk? 

Madigan: More than anything else, it’s a personal view of government, what government should do and how government should operate. I spoke with anybody who wanted to talk with me. I spoke with all of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives. I spoke with ordinary citizens wherever I might be during the months when this proposal was under consideration. 

Klemens: What was your relationship with your caucus? 

Madigan: Our relationship was very good and is very good. 

Klemens: Did you talk with your members? 

Madigan: Oh, yes. Yes, I did. Representative McPike, majority leader, spoke with certain of the members at my direction, so that there was continuing communication between the speaker’s office and the Democratic members of the House. There were certain Democrats who wanted to vote for a tax increase, but the clear majority was against the tax increase. 

Klemens: Did you ever present Thompson’s plan or some alternative in caucus? 

Madigan: Not specifically in terms of sitting down and going point by point. His request for a tax increase was discussed several times in caucus, generally. And as I said, the majority of the members of the House Democratic caucus was against it. 

Klemens: Were they against Thompson’s proposal or any proposal? Could a majority have been for a smaller increase? 

Madigan: That’s possible. That’s not something that we discussed. The focus of our discussion was always on Thompson’s request. 

Klemens: You say you were unconvinced. Yet the Taxpayer’s Federation, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association (IMA), and assorted individual businessmen said that they would go along with the tax increase. What do you know that they didn’t? What factors did you weigh that they didn’t? 

Madigan: I think your picture of business support is just a little distorted. The Chamber of Commerce adopted an official position against the tax increase. The IMA supported the tax increase if the state also enacted their request that the sale of power to manufacturing plants be exempt from the sales tax. The analysis that was given to me showed that under the IMA proposal, the IMA would get more back from the state than they would pay in under the increase, which appeared to be the reason for their support of the income tax increase. I’m just not convinced that there was a unified business position for the tax. I know that I’ve received numerous letters since the session from business people complimenting me on my position.  

Klemens: What kind of arguments would it take to convince you of the need for a tax increase? 

Madigan: I just received reports from Roland Burris the other day on end-of-year balances. I plan to follow those month by month and if in my judgment, the state needs additional revenue I’d be prepared to vote for a tax increase. I did in 1983; I voted for tax increases on several occasions during the 18 years that I have been in the House of Representatives. What I was not going to vote for was a 40 percent increase in Illinois income tax when we had enjoyed revenue growth of $700 million. 

Klemens: Thompson promised a modest tax increase all spring. When he finally made his proposal in June, it was larger than what he characterized “his little bit immodest proposal” a year ago. You didn’t jump all over him. Why not? 

Madigan: Because after 12 years I’m not surprised at anything that comes out of the Thompson administration. Let us not forget, these were the people who offered to the people of Illinois the Thompson proposition of 1978, where they made the issue the level of taxation in the state. They were the ones who demanded a public referendum. They got a result from the referendum and they’ve never abided by the result. [The Thompson proposition asked whether there should be ceilings on taxes and spending for state, local governments and school districts. In the advisory vote, 80 percent of those voting said “yes.”]

Klemens: The education community pushed hard this year for higher taxes. In saying “no” was the legislature trying to tell that constituency something? 

Madigan: Not on my part. Again, my reaction was to concentrate on the 40 percent increase in Illinois’ income tax. It was predicated mainly on my personal view that government, like everybody else, ought to work within their means; and then using that general term “government” includes education or higher education, all the way through elementary and secondary education. It’s an ongoing rule in the legislature that every penny we find is given over to education first and then to other social service departments. … We are not asking education to do something that others have not been asked to do. … 

Klemens: Should those in the education community take from that a message that they had better control their spending? 

Madigan: I don’t want to say to education that this is the message and then leave the impression that I am trying to punish education, because I’m not. I’m like most people in government; I recognize education as the most important thing that government does. But I am just saying in talking generally, all of us in government have to live within our means. 

Klemens: The Economic and Fiscal Commission says that since 1978, state revenues have not kept up with inflation. Their latest report said that even over last year, which was a good year, natural revenue growth trailed inflation. If you are ever going to do anything new, you’ve either got to cut something out or raise taxes. Which would you do? 

Madigan: [That] goes to the question: Should there be an ever-expanding government? I don’t automatically vote yes, because in my experience I don’t believe that government has been able to solve all of the problems that we would like to solve in our society. I don’t believe that simply spending more taxpayers’ money automatically solves these problems. I’m not one who automatically says here’s a problem of society, let’s increase the tax and try to solve the problem. My view would be, here’s a problem of society, if it is the view of the people that government ought and try to solve that problem, let’s try to solve it first with our current resources (current revenue) without raising more. 

Klemens: What do you see as the problems facing Illinois? 

Madigan: The biggest problem facing the state of Illinois is continual economic recovery. … When I went to the legislature in 1971, Illinois was an economic leader in the nation; we were always ahead of everybody else in terms of the economic indicators. But today we either follow the nation or we’re in mid range in the nation. … What I’ve always heard is that the biggest consideration in terms of business investment is the cost of doing business in the state, which is automatically linked to the taxing plan. Contrary to what Gov. Thompson has said, Illinois is not a low tax state. On the contrary, it is either a high tax state or a state which is mid range in the nation in terms of taxation. So I just don’t think that, given the fragile nature of our business environment, that we’re well served by increasing the cost of business when it comes to taxes. 

Klemens: When you say “mid range” are you measuring taxes per capita, state and local instead of just state? 

Madigan: Yes. 

Klemens: Thompson is probably correct to say state taxes are lower isn’t he? 

Madigan: Well, I don’t want to speak for the governor, but if he is doing that, he shouldn’t. I mean the governor should give a full picture; he shouldn’t give half a picture. 

Klemens: Are there problems besides economics that state government should be tackling? 

Madigan: Administration of state government. It’s an ongoing responsibility of the governor and the legislature to work to provide for an efficient government in all of the departments of the government. I think that when people pay taxes they have a right to expect an efficient government as a return on those tax dollars. 

Klemens: Do you have a vision for Illinois?

Madigan: I’d like to see Illinois recoup its position of 20 years ago when it was an economic leader in the nation. After you work your way through all of the political issues, you always come down to the No. 1 concern of an ordinary family in this state, which is simply to be able to live decently either in a home or an apartment; to educate their children to the best of their ability; and lastly, to provide for their retirement. Those are the No. 1 concerns of an ordinary family, and the best way for government to respond to those concerns is to work to have a good business environment so that there are economic opportunities for everyone in the state. 

Klemens: Has Gov. Thompson been around so long that his longevity has become an issue? 

Madigan: It’s an issue to the extent that maybe Thompson has become stale; maybe the people around him have lost the level of interest that’s really important for efficient government; maybe the other Republicans and the Republican legislative leaders don’t respond to the governor as well as they should because they are contemplating that this may be his last term, and they are not anxious to be closely involved with him. 

Klemens: How about many of the legislative leaders? They too are unchanged since 1983? Does that create difficulties? 

Madigan: I think a current problem is the level of distrust among the legislative leaders, which relates to broken promises. Every session inevitably leads toward an end-of-session arrangement, and certain of the sub-agreements within the agreement have not been honored by a certain number of the legislative leaders. … 

Klemens: Who has not followed through on which promises? 

Madigan: All of us, including yours truly. 

Klemens: Which promises have you broken? 

Madigan: Well, these may be confidential in nature. They may be privileged. 

Klemens: Does some of it go all the way back to 1983 to the tax increase? Is that where it started? 

Madigan: Yes. Right. 

Klemens: It kind of continues every year with all these secret pacts that we make? But it builds, is what you are trying to say? 

Madigan: It has. For my part, I am prepared to alleviate the problem and I think to a great extent, we did last June. 

Klemens: What do you think of the way we set priorities in Illinois, where a lot of what is done depends upon interest group pressure? 

Madigan: That is the American democratic process. … I would agree that there could be more long-term planning and long-term implementation, but I think it would require the governor — or any governor — to have a different view of the governor’s relationship with the legislature than Mr. Thompson does. …  [The late Gov. Richard] Ogilvie had a very close, strong working relationship with the legislature. His assistants were before the legislature every day, with committees, talking with individual members so that the view of the administration was well-known and well-implemented in the legislative process. Gov. Thompson, on the other hand, because of his abuse of his authority under the amendatory veto, has basically withdrawn from the legislative process. It’s very common for the governor in his meetings with the legislative leaders to simply say, “Well, I won’t take a position on that bill now; just send me the bill and we’ll look at it and we’ll decide what we want to do with the bill, using the amendatory veto.” So you see, given that attitude, given their withdrawal from the legislative process, you’ve made it very difficult for there to be strong programs being offered and implemented by government in general. …  

I made a reference to broken promises. This year all of the appropriations conferees were very interested in passing a balanced budget, but at the same time, convincing the governor that the governor ought not to be criticizing the legislature for passing a budget out-of-balance. So McPike went to Thompson, said to Thompson, “Look we’ll give you this budget at this level, but we want an agreement that there will be no more public criticism of the legislature for passing the budget not in balance.” Thompson agreed, but then the press office puts together a press release where they complain about a reduction of $150 million, where about $130 million of the reduction was agreed in advance. … It’s another broken promise. Now I don’t fault Thompson personally on this one. … [I fault] somebody in Thompson’s press office. 

Klemens: You’ve been hit repeatedly as “a little dictator” by one newspaper in particular. Does that bother you? 

Madigan: No, because it’s not true. And if that newspaper would take the time to survey the Democratic members of the House, they would get a different view of the situation. … I am a consensus builder, and when you hear me making a public decision or public announcement on a governmental decision, that decision is predicated upon the near unanimous support of House Democrats because I have taken the time to consult with my members, get their views and to make sure that we Democrats in the House are moving together. 

Klemens: How has the Democratic party changed since 1971? What kind of problems does that cause for you as the speaker? 

Madigan: Today there are more minority members of the Democratic party, which normally means, not always, that the focus of the party is more on social service agencies of the state that service the poor, than would have been the case several years ago. In terms of problems for me, I don’t perceive that it has caused problems for me because, as I said earlier, I’m a coalition builder. And all I seek to do is to work with my members to identify their interests or desires and forge coalitions. 

Klemens: You described yourself earlier as an “economy in government” kind of guy. I can see a conflict with the Democratic party that you just described with more interest in social focus. How do you resolve that? 

Madigan: In my view, the Democratic party should be a party of economic opportunity, where the party works to provide an opportunity to people in America who need an opportunity to get ahead in life. As long as the Democratic party is a party of economic opportunity, it will be the majority party in this nation. When it is no longer a party of opportunity and becomes a “tax and spend” party, then it will be the minority party in the country. 

Klemens: Is that to what you attribute the success of the party in maintaining control of the Illinois General Assembly? 

Madigan: Not entirely. The majority of our success in maintaining control of the House relates to: No. 1 to the reapportionment. No. 2 it relates to the ongoing work that we do in terms of helping our individual members build individual records. And No. 3 to the campaign organization that I head every two years. 

Klemens: You were a delegate to the last Constitutional Convention. Do you think we need another one? 

Madigan: I think that we drafted a good document in 1969 and 1970. I think that the rule on constitution making and constitutional amendments, correctly, is that you should only amend where there is a great need to amend for change. …Let me point out, the convention of 1969 and 1970 cost in the end $15 million. Twenty years later, at a minimum, you would be looking at an expenditure of $30 million by the state of Illinois for another constitutional convention, and I don’t see that there is a great need that we should spend $30 million. 

Klemens: What does the future hold for Mike Madigan? Do you want to be governor, mayor, president of the Cook County Board, or what? 

Madigan: Is there a line “none of the above”? 

Klemens: There’s an “or what?” Speaker for life? 

Madigan: My plan is to seek reelection in November of 1988. If successful, to seek reelection as speaker in January of 1989. At a minimum to serve out those two years. Beyond that I have no plans. 

Klemens: Do you have any interest in any of those jobs? 

Madigan: Not necessarily. 

Klemens: Why not? Do you enjoy the legislative process more than you would the administrative one? 

Madigan: I enjoy the legislative process, but for all of those offices, it’s a very personal decision. You are talking about chief executive officers for the three largest governments in the state of Illinois. The time demands upon me as the speaker of the House are very significant and will only get significantly worse if I were to assume any one of those three positions. The personal nature of my concern relates to myself and relates to my family. Yesterday and today, I left the office early to be with my daughters at their day camp for parents’ visiting day. This weekend I plan to be with them on a one-day trip to the Indiana Dunes. Through the last several weeks I have taken them to several baseball games in Chicago. What I am saying is that when I want to do something for my family or for myself, I can do it. I am not constrained by the demands of one of those executive offices. That’s why it’s a personal decision. I think that before you decide to seek one of those offices, you have to analyze just what your personal desires are. 

Klemens: After you have retired from public life, whatever you decide, what do you want to be remembered for? What do you want people to say about Mike Madigan when you’ve moved to the suburbs, bought a big house and become gentrified. 

Madigan: Right, right! That he is and he was a good father. 

Klemens: How about from a public service aspect? 

Madigan: That as a public servant, I was honest, dedicated, and — both personally and governmentally — a man of integrity. 

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.









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