Rauner to deliver second budget speech in Springfield before passing first


By Monique Garcia, Kim Geiger and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner will find himself Wednesday in the awkward position of delivering his second budget proposal before winning approval of his first, the result of unprecedented partisan gridlock that has closed social service programs, driven up the state’s debt and threatens the operation of state universities.

It’s a situation even Rauner has deemed “a mess.”

“It’s hard to give a budget speech for a state that doesn’t have a budget,” Rauner said Tuesday while addressing the state’s pork producers. “But you know what? It’s not really about the budget. It’s about the future direction of Illinois.”


Indeed, the lack of a state spending plan hinges on strongly held ideological differences between Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly about where Illinois should draw the line on business regulations and worker protections.

The governor wants changes in how workers are compensated for on-the-job injuries, tighter rules on big-dollar civil lawsuits and limits on what unions can negotiate in collective bargaining. Democrats contend those proposals would harm middle-class families and should be negotiated separately from the budget.

Absent the changes, Rauner has suggested Democrats go ahead and pass a tax hike without him to balance the state’s woefully out-of-whack finances. It’s against that backdrop that Rauner will give his budget speech, in the midst of an election year in which the first-term GOP governor is pitted against long-serving House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also chairs the state Democratic Party.

Neither side wants to appear as if they are giving in ahead of the November election, and each battle provides fodder for fundraising requests and attack ads.

“The two sides are so entrenched, how are they going to walk it back?” said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “They are too far gone, somehow they’ve got to find a way both can declare victory and go home.”

For his part, Rauner is expected to use the speech to try to gain the upper hand in a simmering dispute with Democrats over state funding for primary and secondary education. He’ll call on lawmakers to send him a bill to spend more money on schools even if a broader budget deal isn’t reached, according to his administration.

Under normal circumstances, the budget speech is an opportunity for the governor to unveil a blueprint on how to raise and spend money for the budget year that begins July 1. It’s the first step in the budget-making process, which in theory is supposed to result in a finalized plan before lawmakers go home at the end of May.


Disagreements between governors and lawmakers routinely have stretched beyond that self-imposed deadline, and at times the state has gone weeks or months into a new financial year without a budget. But the stalemate of the past eight months has been exceptional in its length and depth.

A year ago, Rauner offered up a budget plan that included deep cuts to Medicaid and higher education and called for the state to slash in half the amount of income tax money it shares with local governments. The governor also relied on a proposal to save $2 billion by reducing state worker pension benefits, one that proved overly optimistic due to questions about its legality. And Rauner proposed no tax hikes.

Democrats quickly dismissed Rauner’s budget, and thus began the yearlong struggle over the governor’s “turnaround” agenda. Instead of agreeing to Rauner’s wish list, Democrats sent him a spending plan that made modest cuts but, without a tax hike, still would have spent more than $4 billion beyond what the state was set to collect.

Rauner vetoed the bulk of the Democratic budget, but signed a portion that boosted funding for primary and secondary education. He had campaigned on a pledge to spend more money on schools, and signing the school funding bill allowed him to avoid political fallout that would have occurred if schools didn’t open last fall due to the budget fight.

Meanwhile, courts intervened to ensure that public workers still would be paid, and judges also ordered the state to continue paying much of the costs of providing social and medical services to those in need. As a result, about 90 percent of state government has remained funded during the impasse, and the state is on track to amass a bill backlog of more than $10 billion by the end of June.

At the same time, much of Rauner’s budget proposal of last year was either cast aside or entirely undermined by the political fight at the Statehouse, underscoring the symbolic nature of the budget speech: Governors can propose ideas, but they need cooperation from the legislature to put their plans in place.

“I don’t envy the challenging situation he is in, but certainly I think it’s clear that we can’t have a balanced budget without additional revenue,” said Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who chairs an appropriations committee.

Rauner’s team said Tuesday that the governor will use the budget speech to call on lawmakers to send him another stand-alone bill that spends even more on schools and early childhood education.

“No matter how this session unfolds, send that education bill to my desk — clean, no games — and I’ll sign it immediately,” Rauner plans to say.

That request signals a continuation of the political positioning that’s dominated the last year. But as Rauner and Democrats continue to bicker, social service groups and colleges and universities remain caught in the middle.

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the state’s largest social services agency, has said it will close 30 programs and cut 750 positions because it’s owed more than $6 million by the state. Catholic Charities is owed $25 million and may soon follow suit.

Colleges and universities are struggling to make ends meet without operating dollars from the state.

Chicago State University warned it may not be able to make payroll beginning in March and has declared a financial emergency that will make it easier to lay off employees. Eastern Illinois University has sent layoff notices to 200 nonclassroom employees, while other workers will be forced to take up to 24 unpaid furlough days.

On Tuesday, Democrats sent Rauner a bill to fund community colleges and free up scholarship money for low-income students, but Rauner has said he will veto the plan because the state doesn’t have enough money to cover the costs.

Social service advocates who lined up by the dozens in the Capitol on the eve of the budget speech said that only underlined the need for Rauner to agree to a tax increase sooner rather than later.

“People are learning more and more about the pain that’s being caused, and I don’t think anybody believes child abuse or causing anyone to quit their jobs or drop out of college helps our economy or helps our families and communities,” said Neal Waltmire, spokesman for the Responsible Budget Coalition, a group of social service providers and education and labor groups pushing for a tax increase.

Republicans counter that throwing more money at the problem won’t fix the structural issues they say are at the root of Illinois’ financial struggles.

“I would love to know other than raising taxes again what Democrats plan to do to move Illinois forward,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. “What’s their alternative? It’s pretty clear that in 2014 the people said you can’t keep doing it the way you’re doing it.”

For his part, Rauner has given no indication he plans to back down from his agenda, saying state government is in worse shape than many people realize.

“However bad you think my government operations might be, it’s worse,” Rauner said Tuesday. “There’s good people in government, I like the people. But boy, the system’s broken.” 

(c) 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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