News Local/State

Rauner Seeks ‘Mutual Respect’ In State Of The State, But Skips Budget Hardships

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is seen on a video monitor at the Illinois Statehouse as he delivers his State of the State address

A monitor shows Gov. Bruce Rauner, as he delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly at the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. Amanda Vinicky/Illinois Public Radio

Roughly one year ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner stood before lawmakers and unveiled his so-called "turnaround agenda." He didn't use that phrase this time around. But Wednesday, the governor used his state-of-the-state address to continue fighting for his stalled vision. Rauner has spent months berating Democrats for failing to get on board. Not this time. He gave a more conciliatory message, and talked about "mutual respect." That wasn't enough for some of his critics, who don't trust the governor, or his change in tone.

Illinois, Rauner said, is a wonderful place.

"We have the hardest working people in America; we have the best strategic location of any state. The most fertile fields and best agriculture. We are the transportation hub of America. We have the commercial capital of the Midwest - the heart of America - in Chicago," he said.

Followed by a big "but."

"Jobs and people are leaving our state," he said. "We have fewer jobs today than we had at the turn of this century. Our average working family is making less than they were 8 years ago. We are virtually tied for the highest property taxes in America, and we have far more layers of government and mountains of debt at every level."

Rauner, a Republican, continues to say that the solution to those ills is to make the state more welcoming to business, so they can create jobs. You'd be hard pressed to find a politician against that. It's just in how Rauner wants to do it that his critics oppose.

Often, his answer is to limit unions' power to bargain for wages and other benefits. He's also calling for limits on litigation, and to cut companies' costs when an employee is hurt and files a workers' compensation claim. Democrats have refused, saying that it'll drive injured workers to the poorhouse, or at least to the emergency room instead of a doctor.

"I understand that union leaders and trial lawyers are putting pressure on you to keep the status quo -- but if we don't offer a competitive environment for businesses, pretty soon the unions won't have any more jobs to unionize and the trial lawyers won't have any more businesses to sue," he said, to applause from Republicans and peeved groans from Democrats.

That was a political dig at Democrats. In a period of hyper-partisanship, and a year of stalled efforts, of course there'd be some of that, but largely, he refrained from the harsh words he's used lately in reference to leaders of the opposite party.

Rather, Rauner seemed to reach out to them -- or, more precisely, to Senate President John Cullerton, with whom he's been negotiating a plan to cut the state's pension costs.

The governor used his speech to highlight that pending compromise, and to offer to work on one of Cullerton's priorities -- changing how schools are funded.

It was one of ten bullet points Rauner unveiled on a new education wish list.

Even as he was extending the olive branch, though, Rauner added ideas that have already begun to revv up unions. His new education proposal calls for school choice -- think charter schools or vouchers, and for measuring progress and setting benchmarks for teachers. Not to mention calling the union that represents most state employees, AFSCME, "out of touch with reality."

Following the speech, Cullerton seemed to say that it was Rauner who's out of touch with reality, if he thinks his party -- whose members make up most of the General Assembly -- are going to abandon labor.

"We have a co-equal branch. We also have a supermajority of Democrats. You can't just suggest Democrats to be voting like radical Republicans in the legislature. It's not going to happen."

Cullerton, and Illinois' other top Democrat, longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, say what Rauner needs to do, is focus on the budget.

While Rauner's been holding out for his "turnaround" Illinois has gone without a budget. Roughly eight months in, and the state has seen its credit downgraded, its debt build, and its social service network begin to crumble.

Though in the House chambers were Rauner stood before lawmakers to give his speech it was hard to make out what they were yelling, all throughout the address demonstrators were just outside, chanting for a budget solution.

The governor plotted various ideas for the year ahead: fixes to procurement rules; the development of a state economic development corporation; reducing the prison population; local government consolidation.

That he largely ignored the budget and related human service cuts didn't escape Speaker Madigan.

"I certainly would have appreciated it had he done that, had he offered some comment as to why that hasn't happened," Madigan said afterward.

Democratic Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago, who has miffed his fellow caucus members by siding with the governor on at least one pivotal vote, and who has received backing from a new Political Action Committee, the IllinoisGO PAC, that describes itself as pro-Democrats but is widely perceived as a front group for Rauner, shortly thereafter turned that criticism back on Madigan.  During a press conference in which he brandished a sleeping bag and soup to demonstrate a willingness to camp at the capitol until a budget is passed, Dunkin said everyone wants a solution but "one man" -- Madigan.

But other Democrats, as well as social service providers, also expressed frustration with the governor for failing to pointedly address the budget situation.

House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs -- sloughed off the criticism.

“Today is the state of the state, not the state of the budget,” he said. "I'll give the man his opportunity, the governor his opportunity, at that time to talk about where we're at with the budget and also the impasse." That comes in a few weeks. the budget address is scheduled for Feb. 17.

It's doubtful there'll be too much movement before then; despite Rauner's call to not delay and for lawmakers to move on what they can agree to, neither Democrats or Republicans showed any willingness to cave on the big ticket, highly controversial issues facing Illinois. By then, social service providers warn that, more rape crisis centers, senior daycares, and public health clinics, may have been forced to close.