Credit: Justin Fowler

Having failed to drive the state into bankruptcy in one fell swoop, Illinois governor Bruce Rauner came up with a new strategy: bleed it to death with a thousand nicks.

That’s what’s kept him busy over the last few weeks. First, there was his early July budget veto, which house speaker Michael Madigan managed to override, thus preventing Illinois from hitting junk bond status. Then on July 24, Rauner called a special session, summoning legislators to Springfield even though there wasn’t much for them to do. We won’t know how much that session cost until all the General Assembly members’ per diem vouchers have been submitted. But an estimate from senate president John Cullerton’s office suggests roughly $48,000 a day.

Hey, 48 grand here, 48 grand there, and soon we’ll achieve Rauner’s dream of state bankruptcy.

By the time you read this, events will have undoubtedly hurtled forward to a new special session. But I can’t allow this moment to pass without trying to capture the brief history of the special session of July 26 through 28, a momentous three days in Illinois history.

On May 31, the Democrats passed a school funding bill called SB1, which would distribute the state aid schools need to open this year. Rauner opposed the bill on the grounds that it’s a Chicago bailout, even though it’s not. In fact, it would send hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts from Cairo to Zion. Chicago would use much of the money it gets from the bill to help pay its teacher pensions. The governor wants downstaters to think that paying pensions to teachers in Chicago is more diabolical than paying teachers’ pensions elsewhere.

Rauner vowed to veto SB1, which he promptly did on August 1. So Cullerton didn’t immediately send it to the governor, ostensibly to give Rauner time to calm down. In reality, Cullerton’s delay was intended to force the governor to eventually sign the bill, by making him feel the pressure of the impending August 10 deadline. That’s when the state sends its first payments to districts throughout Illinois for the start of the coming school year.

As I’ve explained before, Rauner’s budget strategy is to keep just enough money flowing into the state’s coffers so his voters won’t be affected by the impasse. So far the only people really hurt by it are the aged, infirm, and indigent, as well as other people who would never vote for him and who he therefore couldn’t give less of a shit about. (That sort of sums up the attitude of the modern Republican Party, when you think about it.)

But the Democrats figured that if Rauner were to veto the education-funding bill, it would turn parents in suburban and downstate swing districts against the governor.

Trying to put the heat on the Democrats, Rauner went on a statewide tour where he bashed Madigan, ripped Chicago, and tried to pass himself off as just an ordinary guy who’s standin’ up for the hardworkin’ people of Illinois. As opposed to a billionaire venture capitalist who owns properties throughout the country, including a luxurious condo across the street from Maggie Daley Park, where he occasionally goes rollerblading.

When his statewide tour didn’t cause Madigan or Cullerton to blink, Rauner tried a new public relations stunt: taking a page from President Donald Trump, he issued an executive order, declaring that “I, Governor Bruce Rauner, hereby call and convene the 100th General Assembly in a Special Session to commence at 12:00 Noon on July 26, 2017.”

And so it was that dozens of legislators schlepped to Springfield from every corner of the state. Well, some didn’t. In a glorious display of defiance, Chicago state reps Ann Williams and Kelly Cassidy spent much of that period painting and cleaning up schools in their north-side districts. That’s probably the most productive thing any legislators have done since Rauner took office.

On July 26 about half the legislators in both houses gathered for day one of the three-day session. “Here’s what happened—absolutely nothing,” says state rep Rob Martwick, a northwest-side Democrat. That’s because there was nothing to do. The legislators couldn’t take action until Rauner vetoed the bill. And he didn’t have the opportunity to veto it until it was sent to him—which Cullerton finally did on July 31.

So they gaveled the meeting to order. They brought on a clergyman, who said a prayer. Recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Took the roll call. A handful of Republicans gave speeches in which they said Rauner was wonderful and Madigan was awful. And then everyone adjourned to the back rooms, where they drank gin out of flasks, played poker, smoked cigars, ate steaks, and told bawdy jokes.

Actually, that’s how legislators behaved in the old days. From what I’ve heard they’ve really cleaned up their acts. “That night I watched Ozark,” says Martwick of the new Netflix series starring Jason Bateman. “It’s a pretty good show.”

Day two went much the same as day one—prayer, pledge, etc. But no Republicans spoke. (Perhaps they were exhausted from having stayed up late, binging on Netflix.) “The whole thing was over in about eight minutes,” Martwick says.

There was, however, a caucus meeting with Rauner that was closed to the press. But obviously the Rauner statehouse is as riddled with leaks as the Trump White House. Unnamed Republican sources told reporters that Rauner urged them to stick together because the “revolution” is coming and SB1 is “evil.”

Evil? Governor, we’re talking about a school funding bill. If you think that’s evil, you’ve gotta get out more.

On day three of the special session, legislators convened, prayed, pledged, adjourned, and went home. “The whole thing was a waste of time,” Martwick says.

That won’t stop them from doing it again. Now that Rauner’s vetoed SB1, we can look forward to another special session. Let’s hope legislators can scrape up enough Republicans to override his veto and protect the state from our rollerblading revolutionary.   v