Commentary: Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Madigan fixation may reflect how little the governor has to show for his first three years in office.
In November, 2014, Republican Bruce Rauner beat then-Gov. Pat Quinn by some 142,000 votes following a campaign featuring "the incumbent Democrat is a failure" as a major theme.
Not surprisingly, a lot of folks — many of them union workers smarting from Quinn's efforts to cut public employee retirement benefits — voted for Rauner simply because he was not Quinn.
As candidate filing this week officially kicked off campaign 2018, one might suspect that Rauner's new mantra is, "Vote for me because I'm not Mike Madigan." The focus on the long-serving House Speaker is politically expedient, of course, because Madigan may well be the most disliked political figure in the state, after the governor and his operatives have spent millions characterizing the Chicago Democrat as the Darth Vader-Lord Voldemort of Illinois.
But the governor's Madigan fixation also may reflect that by many measures, Rauner's three years in office have been worse for Illinois than the "failed" Quinn, leaving Rauner with little to crow about.
Consider the record in three important areas:
Perhaps the most important task governors and lawmakers face is to enact a spending plan for the ensuing fiscal period. For 197 of the state's first 199 years, elected officials succeeded, every two years for the first 151 years of statehood, then every year after Illinois went to annual budgets in 1969. The string was broken six months into Rauner's term, though, when he vetoed all but school funding from the Fiscal Year 2016 spending plan sent him by the Legislature's Democratic majorities. The impasse persisted until early July this year, when majority Democrats with the critical support of a handful of Republicans overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a budget for FY ‘18.
On his campaign website, though, the governor declared, "We’ve insisted on a balanced budget, in spite of the career politicians in Springfield ... Then over the summer, Mike Madigan passed another unbalanced budget and an outrageous 32 percent income tax hike over our veto."
The next step, according to the site? "We will introduce a plan to repeal the Madigan tax hike and require the budget to be truly balanced. No balanced budget = no pay for legislators. They need to earn their paycheck before taking more from yours."
But the governor's rhetoric is misleading on at least two counts. Rauner has yet to propose a balanced budget himself, instead relying on old-school gimmicks and smoke-and-mirrors accounting to make estimated resources match supposed expenditures, just as "career politicians" from both parties have done for years.
Perhaps more dishonest is the governor's pledge to stop legislative pay if lawmakers don't approve a balanced budget. Quinn tried that in July, 2013, deleting legislative salaries from the FY ‘14 budget he signed to pressure the General Assembly to cut pension benefits. But a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled the veto violated the constitutional provision that legislative salaries can't be changed mid-term, and a 2014 law made legislators’ salaries a continuing appropriation, meaning they must be paid even without a governor's approval.
And don't forget, when Quinn left office the state's backlog of unpaid bills was some $6.6 billion. Under Rauner, the past-due accounts topped out a month ago at $16.4 billion, roughly two and a half times greater, before bond sales brought in $6.5 billion that allowed Comptroller Susana Mendoza to pare the mountain of debt to $9.2 billion heading into November's final week.
Elementary and secondary education was the only state program to escape the two-year long budget impasse, and Rauner rightly notes on his site that funding has grown by almost $1 billion during his tenure, with state aid claims no longer prorated at cents on the dollar, as happened under Quinn.
But he's leaving out significant details when he adds, "And this year, we signed a historic education reform law that provides tax credits for scholarship programs, provides more funding for school districts most in need and removes onerous state mandates to give local communities more control."
True, a new funding formula was enacted that bases state aid on the resources each district needs to provide a good education for its particular mix of students, and that directs new money to those districts whose local resources —property taxes — are farthest from what's needed. But the process was threatened by Rauner's efforts to change the initial bipartisan agreement to penalize Chicago public schools and to hurt districts losing enrollment in future years. The Senate rejected his proposed changes, and legislative leaders crafted a compromise plan that passed easily, winning the governor's signature. Ironically, the measure he signed will provide more money to city schools than the earlier version he derided as a "Chicago bailout."
As for his other points? The tax credit is limited to $75 million and expires in five years, while removing the "onerous state mandates" means a requirement for daily physical education classes is trimmed to three days a week, and school districts may now privatize driver's education.
More notable was the topic conveniently overlooked in the governor's self-congratulations, higher education. The budget impasse was devastating to the state's public colleges and universities, essentially forcing them to survive for two years on roughly one year's worth of state funding. Even now, the state's $2.4 billion allocation for higher education is $70 million less than in 2015, not counting pension payments. Private schools suffered, too, as all students lost monetary assistance grants that helped defray tuition and other costs.
The effects have been catastrophic, as schools laid off hundreds of faculty and staff and closed programs; at the same time, enrollment declined sharply as thousands of college-bound high school graduates chose out-of-state schools, a brain drain that will be felt for years.
"My vision is to make Illinois the most competitive and compassionate state in the nation," Rauner says on his website. But actions speak louder than words, and the governor's record includes attempts to cut state subsidies for child care that allows low-income parents to work, to slash home care assistance that helps keep senior citizens out of nursing homes, and most recently, to trim funding for autism services, after-school programming, and immigrant and refugee services, among others.
Moreover, the budget impasse shredded the state's safety net, causing not-for-profit providers like mental health centers, domestic abuse shelters and addiction treatment programs across the state to cut staff, reduce caseload, and in some cases close their doors.
“It will take years to fix this devastation,” said an executive of one provider association, after this year's budget finally was in place.
Some critics suspect that was Rauner's strategy all along, to use crippling cuts to programs serving low-income or high-need individuals to force Democrats representing the disadvantaged to pass his pro-business, anti-union agenda.
If so, the governor badly miscalculated, as Republican legislators from districts whose universities, state facilities and health and human service providers were suffering after two years with little or no funding ultimately chose to override his budget veto.
In the end, his cherished agenda to make Illinois a right-to-work state, to eliminate prevailing wage requirements, and to destroy public-employee unions went nowhere, probably not surprising in a state with deep roots in the labor movement and a GOP governor — James Thompson — who signed the law granting public workers the right to unionize.
To be fair, Rauner's website also touts criminal justice reforms enacted during his tenure intended to reduce the state's prison population and provide new opportunities to ex-offenders to cut down on recidivism. The ambitious goal, outlined in his first few months in office, is to reduce prison population by a quarter by 2025. So far, he's well on track; the most recent Corrections Department quarterly report showed 42,654 inmates as of August 31, 11 percent fewer than the February, 2015, prison population.
Worth noting, though, all the changes in sentencing laws, prison regulations and offender treatment have been the product of bipartisan cooperation, all too rare with Rauner, but standard operating procedure under his Republican predecessors Richard Ogilvie, Thompson, Jim Edgar, and George Ryan.
Also of note, though not mentioned on the governor's campaign pages, are two major measures he signed which have earned him condemnation from more conservative Republicans. Under the "Trust Act," state and local police cannot arrest or hold a person based solely on immigration status unless a judge issues a warrant. Anti-immigration groups quickly blasted the governor for making Illinois a "sanctuary state," while federal officials criticized the new law as putting communities at risk.
Even more controversial was Rauner's signature on legislation that provides coverage for abortion services under the joint state-federal Medicaid program and under state employee group health insurance. Anti-abortion lawmakers were especially enraged because he had assured them — and Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich — that he would veto the proposal.
Neither of the new laws wins Rauner any favor with the state's right-leaning Republican base, and in fact they were the final straw that prompted a primary challenge from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a conservative firebrand from Wheaton, who said the governor has "absolutely violated every principle that is core to the Republican Party."
"Governor Rauner betrayed our party and our values," the West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran said at a Quad Cities campaign stop. "He lied to us. He lied to people in the party about vetoing that bill. And he's basically Benedict Rauner at this point."
Her fervor notwithstanding, Ives is probably a long shot to topple Rauner in the March primary. History is not in her favor — no Republican incumbent seeking re-election has lost his party's nomination in at least the last 50 years — and Rauner already has $65 million in his campaign war chest with more where that came from.
In fact, only one sitting governor was dumped in a primary in the last half century, self-styled Democratic maverick Dan Walker, who lost to then Secretary of State Michael Howlett by some 115,000 votes thanks to a 204,00-vote plurality the affable secretary of state piled up in Chicago, courtesy of Mayor Richard J. Daley's efficient political machine.
And the very issues so enraging the GOP grass roots could help Rauner's standing with moderate women voters, an important November demographic. Still, the governor faces an uphill battle, surveys suggest. The respected national Cook Political Report recently rated Rauner as the most vulnerable GOP governor seeking re-election in 2018, and Morning Consult, also a national operation, last month said Rauner posted the lowest approval rating — just 30 percent — and highest disapproval mark — 55 percent — of any freshman chief executive in a recent poll. Only four governors fared worse, the pollsters said, and none are seeking another term.
But then again, Bruce Rauner is not Mike Madigan...
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