Optimistic Rauner mum on what it will take to end budget impasse


Gov. Bruce Rauner gives a thumbs up after giving his first speech as governor on Monday Jan. 12, 2015 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By Monique Garcia and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

As Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to talk up the possibility that he could strike a sweeping agreement with lawmakers to resolve the budget stalemate by the end of the month, he’s refusing to say which portions of his agenda he needs to get the deal done.

It’s nothing new, as Rauner has long been wary of giving away his negotiating position. Instead, he’s issued broad calls to freeze property taxes, cut costs related to workers hurt on the job, curb benefits that could be negotiated during collective bargaining and rein in pricey civil lawsuits.

Democrats largely have rebuffed those efforts, saying they would harm the middle class and are unrelated to the state budget, which is billions of dollars out of whack after a temporary income tax hike began to expire in January 2015.


On Monday, Rauner offered the latest reason for his opacity on the 10-month stalemate, saying he was keeping quiet so he wouldn’t derail negotiations among rank-and-file lawmakers who are scrambling to come up with something they can present to legislative leaders.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the legislature in their negotiations. I don’t want to comment on specifics,” Rauner said during an event commemorating small businesses at his favorite Springfield microbrewery. “But I think the good news is they are talking about very significant reforms, I am told, and they are talking about a balanced budget that includes cuts as well as some tax revenue reform, and I think that’s the right answer.”

Rank-and-file members, frustrated by months of inaction, hope there’s an opening before lawmakers head home at the end of May. None want to spend a summer on the campaign trail with little to show.

But cutting a deal in the next four weeks is far from an easy task, particularly in an election year when few want to be on the record voting for a tax increase. That political reality is made even more difficult by the likelihood that a budget agreement also is likely to include major spending cuts, meaning taxpayers will be asked to pony up more but get less in return.

It’s a tricky situation Rauner acknowledges while still trying to strike an optimistic tone.

“There are many legislators who, they won’t vote for a tax raise no matter what, end of story. I’ve talked to them. We are going to have to find those folks who are willing to compromise. I’m willing to compromise. But in order to do it, we need structural reform to protect taxpayers in the future,” Rauner said. “And frankly, there are many members on both sides of the aisle who have their own pet programs or pet spending that they won’t consider cutting in any scenario. Well, you know what? We have got to have some cuts.

“This is why it’s taken over a year,” Rauner said. “I hope we can get it done in the next four weeks.”


Others are less hopeful, saying Rauner will continue to stand in the way by demanding his agenda items.

“The governor doesn’t understand what stirs the economy. If he did we would have had a budget long ago,” said Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.

“The problem isn’t the numbers on the budget. They can sit there crunching budget numbers all day long, and I’m glad they are,” Lang said of his colleagues in the legislature. “I think they’re doing yeomen’s work and important work, but in the end, this budget crisis will end when the governor decides to do a budget and not before.”

For his part, Rauner contended it was a good thing he was not directly involved with the latest round of negotiations, saying he believes rank-and-file lawmakers are better equipped to build consensus and put pressure on legislative leaders who may be more unwilling to bend.

“Having it done by the legislature is, I think, the best answer. Frankly, we should all be embarrassed that we haven’t gotten this done in the last year. It’s ridiculous,” Rauner said. “Well, time’s up. And good news is legislators have come to the conclusion that they have to step up and do the right thing, and they are going to push the leaders and the General Assembly is my sense.”


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