Rauner, Democrats try to avoid budget blame as elections approach


Daily Egyptian file photo.

By Rick Pearson and Monique Garcia and Kim Geiger, Chicago Tribune

At the heart of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget address was a request for special authority to make spending cuts.

It was an easy ask, since Democrats who control the legislature aren’t going to grant him such powers out of fear he might actually use them. Instead, Democrats say the Illinois Constitution already is set up to give the first-term governor much of what he wants: All he needs to do is take out his veto pen and go line by line to make reductions to the budget bills they send him.

Those arguments are politically convenient for both parties, even if they don’t get state government any closer to solving its intractable problems. No one wants the blame for either a tax increase or massive budget cuts. And political cover is the order of the day ahead of the November general election, when Democrats will try to preserve supermajorities in the House and Senate and Rauner is trying to pick off as many of them as he can to increase his leverage and win approval of his pro-business, union-weakening agenda.


The spring session is expected to be a repeat of last year’s stalemate, and Rauner acknowledged as much in his speech.

“As elected officials, you have to deal with political realities,” said Rauner, who has three years left in his term while most lawmakers are up for re-election this fall. “Primary elections. Special interests. Campaign supporters.”

Rauner is asking for the extra authority because the budget blueprint he submitted Wednesday is $3.5 billion in the red. (Democrats say it’s likely to be $5 billion short because several cost-saving measures the governor proposed are likely to run into political or legal difficulties.)

Dubbed the “unbalanced budget response act” by the administration, the proposal would give the governor unprecedented authority to cut spending in all state agencies, including the legislative branch and constitutional offices. He would be able to limit automatic yearly spending known as continuing appropriations, which set aside pots of money for things including lawmaker salaries, pension payments, tax revenue normally doled out to local governments and health insurance for retired teachers.

The powers also would allow him to cut health care costs and reduce the number of people who qualify for various human service programs by giving him authority to adjust payment rates for providers and limit eligibility requirements. The only things Rauner’s office has said would be off-limits are debt payments, money for early childhood education and funding for school districts.

Democrats, not wanting to risk money for public employee pensions and local governments including Chicago, point to the governor’s existing ability to reduce or zero out line items in the spending plan.

“If we pass a budget that the governor thinks is out of whack, he can amendatory veto the budget – he can reduce the line items,” Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said. “It’s in the constitution. He has the authority to do it. He should have done it last year.”


Administration officials contend that so much spending is written into state law that Rauner was limited in what he could cut through his veto powers. As it is, Republicans acknowledge he doesn’t want to be forced to make the cuts on his own this time around, either.

“He doesn’t want to have to make drastic cuts all by himself,” said Senate GOP leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. “But if there’s no alternative, we owe it to the taxpayers of this state to stop the bleeding, and that’s what this does.”

By proposing a budget that’s at least $3.5 billion short, Rauner may have undercut one of the main arguments he has used against Democrats: Last year they sent him a budget that was at least $4 billion in the red, leaving him no choice but to veto all of it except for spending on elementary and secondary education. The governor has now done the same thing.

Government worker pension payments remain a big part of state spending. Last year, Rauner counted on $2 billion in savings from a proposed change in public pensions that likely was unconstitutional and ultimately went nowhere.

This year he says he’ll back Cullerton’s plan to overhaul retirement benefits, though specific language has yet to materialize. In the meantime, the governor has proposed saving an estimated $750 million by ending late-career salary spikes, requiring schools and universities to pick up employee pension costs above a $180,000 yearly salary, and changing how payroll is counted toward pension payments. Democrats say that last one would only backload the pension payment schedule.

As Illinois’ budget problems grow exponentially, so do the political difficulties of resolving them, with election-year politics creating huge partisan divides in which each side tries to avoid being blamed for the mess.

Cullerton has said that if there is to be a tax increase, “it’s going to be Bruce Rauner who decides we’re going to have it” because Democrats, particularly in an election year, are unwilling to raise taxes without Republicans also joining in.

“That’s on him,” Cullerton said of Rauner.

Rauner wants Democrats to approve his economic agenda, which includes changes to rules on how workers are compensated for on-the-job injuries, tighter rules on big-dollar lawsuits and limits on what unions can negotiate in collective bargaining. In return for those items, Rauner has suggested he’d go along with a tax hike to bring the budget into greater balance.

That’s not a very appealing invitation, Cullerton said. If Democrats were to go along with Rauner’s agenda, “our reward, that Democrats get to vote for a tax increase, is kind of crazy.”

Cullerton’s House counterpart, Speaker Michael Madigan, once again has called for a state constitutional amendment that would put a 3 percent surcharge on incomes of more than $1 million to go to public education.

Though Madigan lacked the votes in the legislature to put the measure on the ballot for the 2014 election and is likely to be unsuccessful this time as well, the proposal represents an effort by the Democrat to play on the national presidential campaign theme of income inequity as he blasts Rauner for proposing an “extreme-right economic theory” to weaken unions.

While a target of Madigan’s push, Rauner could counter that the veteran House speaker’s effort is an attempt to raise state taxes to bail out a Chicago Public Schools system mired in red ink, a district that didn’t help itself politically when its former CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pleaded guilty to federal public corruption charges in October. Rauner already has said Chicago’s schools aren’t entitled to any special deals or a bailout and has asked his State Board of Education to look into CPS finances. On Friday, Rauner said the system could “very likely” face a state takeover that Democrats are rejecting.

It is Rauner and his promise to use the wealth he attained as a private equity investor to erode the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate that represents an unknown factor for Madigan and Cullerton in legislative races this fall.

While a majority of Democrats are running in districts that have been drawn favorably for them – and have the potential plus of a home-state native in Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket – the infusion of Rauner money and that of his wealthy allies in mailings, automated phone calls and TV commercials could have an impact.

With the general election set to become a public referendum on Rauner and Madigan, already a proxy war between the two is playing out in Chicago’s 5th House District Democratic primary contest between Rep. Ken Dunkin and challenger Juliana Stratton.

More than $2 million, an unprecedented sum for a legislative primary contest, could be spent between Dunkin, who has allied himself with Rauner against Madigan, and Stratton, who is backed by organized labor. Dunkin decided to side with Rauner, denying Madigan’s Democrats their 71-vote, veto-proof majority on issues affecting public employees and social services.

Dunkin got $500,000 from the Illinois Opportunity Project, which is backed by Rauner supporters, and has gotten another $441,000 in outside help from the IllinoisGO political action committee, which ostensibly supports Democrats that share many of Rauner’s views. Dunkin began the year with $226,000 in his campaign bank account.

Stratton has emerged as a well-financed challenger. Since the start of the year, she has raised more than $644,000, largely in big checks from public worker and labor trade unions.

Republicans in Springfield also were surprised recently when Rauner sent a video to a Sangamon County GOP event in which he endorsed the primary challenger of Sen. Sam McCann. He was the county organization’s endorsed candidate but was the only Republican to buck Rauner on a major labor union-supported vote.

Amid the election-year backdrop, Rauner was careful in his speech to strike a more measured, bipartisan tone. He called on Democrats to “commit today to working together” and asserted that things could get done at the Capitol “if everyone was willing to compromise.”

That shows it’s not just lawmakers who are worried about the fallout from the budget fight this fall, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

“Look at the rhetoric he’s using: ‘I’m giving my hand, I love you, your eyes are so blue,'” Mooney said of Rauner’s speech. “He wants to look reasonable. Public opinion is such that everyone wants government spending to be cut, but no one wants specific details. By keeping (the budget address) general, it’s more pleasing to the public.”


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