Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in his second state of the state address,on Wednesday, held to the same agenda from the playbook that he has used since his election to lead this solidly blue state. Focused on limits to collective bargaining, workmen’s compensation reform, and a pro business environment, they have little chance of being passed by a General Assembly that is solidly controlled by Democrats.
Rauner faces intense criticism for not agreeing to a budget for this fiscal year, unless his measures are agreed upon, and as a result, has garnered stinging criticism. Two of which are glaring: the state’s largest social services agency, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, is ready to cut over 30 programs that serve 4,700 clients, due to lack of state funds, and 130,000 low-income college students who need tuition money awarded them through a state sponsored program, totalling $370 million.
These, and more unpaid bills, represent a $6 billion dollar deficit, a figure which is 12 percent of state spending, a significant increase from last year’s amount of $4 billion. As CNBC has noted, “Without a formal budget, Illinois has been limping along by extending parts of last year’s spending plan, settling on piecemeal appropriations and battling out the impasse in the courts,” a pattern that is unsettling for residents, as well as politicians.
A long standing unfunded pensions deficit of $112 billion — one-quarter of the Illinois GDP, and nearly three times that of state revenue, also has to be addressed. But, in his thirty minute address Rauner struck the first salvo by saying, “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.”
In a move that some see as stagecraft, or as a way to drive a wedge between the State Senate president, John Cullerton, and the powerful Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, he gave almost voluble support to the former without mentioning the latter. All part of what his staff says is an effort to help the pension deficit crisis.
The weeks leading up to the address provided a seeming solution to the crisis with he and Cullerton, hammering out a plan, only to have Rauner announce a version, that was later denounced by Cullerton as not being the plan they had agreed upon. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Cullerton has acknowledged that his pension plan faces likely union opposition, and Democrats are closely aligned with unions that are providing millions of dollars in campaign cash and ground troops for legislative races. There also are questions about whether the Cullerton-Rauner pension plan would pass legal muster.”
In another dubious move, that some say is deliberately disingenuous, the governor touted education as a priority, especially K-12, but never said where the money would come from, or even addressed the Monetary Awards Program, the state’s college assistance program, for low income university and community college students. “It’s a little bit schizophrenic. It’s one thing to say education’s such a high priority and another to have these higher education institutions talk about closing their doors and laying off so many people,” said Sen.Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago.
Rauner has also proposed a privatization of the state’s economic arm, that seems less of a much heralded comprise, with madigan, but mostly an example of old-fashioned political horse trading. The Tribune reported that “The idea to create such an organization had been an early point of potential compromise between Rauner and Madigan last year. The two appeared to have brokered a deal to allow the governor to privatize a portion of the state’s economic development efforts while giving the speaker his wish of a stand-alone agency to oversee the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, but talks broke down.”
Using the power of a not-for-profit entity “to dole out state grants and negotiate tax incentives for private businesses on behalf of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity,” is, they said, “likely to stir controversy because privatization of state functions typically raises concerns about transparency and accountability. It also sent a signal to Madigan and his Democratic allies that Rauner is willing to work around the legislature to get things.”
In his closing remarks, he said: “Our job in this Capital is to improve the lives of all the people of Illinois, through more economic opportunity, better educational opportunity, and more value for their hard-earned tax dollars. To achieve a grand compromise, we must cast partisanship and ideology aside. We must break from the politics of the past and do what is right for the long term future of our state. I’m ready – and it’s my genuine hope that you are too. Let’s continue this journey together. Illinois can’t wait any longer.”
Reaction from the other side the aisle was predictable, and Senate Democrat candidate Bob Fioretti said in a statement, “Rauner insists on blaming unions for our financial mess, but this old saw isn’t the problem now, and it hasn’t been the problem for the decades anti-union business interests have claimed as much. More and more economic research shows unions are good for workers and good for the surrounding economy by raising wages.”
Fioretti also noted while they agree on some things: reducing the prison population, the importance of education, vocational training and addiction treatment, he said they do not agree on the solutions, “The solution in Illinois, in Chicago and in the 5th State Senate District isn’t to break unions, it’s to invest in our schools. Fix the disparities that deny impoverished neighborhoods a fair share of funding and require Chicago teachers to contribute more to their pensions than teachers anywhere else in the state,” he said.
Another Democrat, State Sen. Melinda Bush, of suburban Grayslake, in her statement, using blunter terms, said, “The problem this past year has not been with the governor’s initiatives, but with his actions,” and that “After a year that pulled the rug out from under seniors, children and the needy, I hope his call for cooperation is real. It is time for Illinois to move past partisan bickering.”
Turning up the volume even higher was SEIU Illinois Healthcare Vice President Greg Kelley, who in the statement released by his office, noted, “The governor has caused massive cuts to the social safety net in Illinois as part of a scheme to enact his “Turnaround Agenda” to lower wages and worker protections. And it has been people of color and women who have disproportionately borne the brunt of his scorched-earth strategy.”
With the voices of his critics ringing in his ears, and the shouts of demonstrators outside the capitol building screaming, “Budget first,” what many seem to be asking is this: “Is he listening?”