In State Of The State, Rauner Throws First Pitch Of His "Turnaround" Manifesto To Legislators

Feb 5, 2015

Gov. Bruce Rauner gave his first State of the State address Tuesday; he says it's "make or break time for the Land of Lincoln."
Credit Amanda Vinicky

For the past couple of weeks, Illinois' new governor, Bruce Rauner, traveled the state, giving speeches that mostly told audiences what's wrong with Illinois. Tuesday, he used his state of the state address to begin to describe what he wants to do about it.

Rauner didn't just deliver a big speech yesterday. He produced a full manifesto, complete with calls for an upheaval of Illinois' labor laws, changes to the constitution, a property tax freeze, and the hiring of more prison guards. The speech started off on a conciliatory note. Or maybe it was an invitation.

"Last November, voters made it clear they want bipartisan government. They want a government where people come together to solve problems and get things done. They don't want partisan bickering, political infighting or personal conflict to get in the way of serving the needs of the families of Illinois," he said. And then he got aspirational: "Together, we will do great things for the people of Illinois. We will once again make Illinois the greatest state in the greatest nation on earth."

But then Rauner went on to list a range of ideas, many of which -- by his own admission -- were sure to miff key constituencies, like the Democratic President of the State Senate, John Cullerton, who issued a statement saying the governor's "opportunity was squandered with campaign rhetoric that denigrates the reputation of the state."

Rauner is the first Republican to occupy the governor's mansion in a dozen years, and in that time, Democrats have only grown their legislative ranks. Democrats literally occupy so many seats in the General Assembly, some spill over the aisle and have to sit on the GOP side.

To make his agenda a reality, Rauner has no choice but to get bipartisan support, and yet he focused on reducing the strength of unions -- a traditional Democratic ally (though in Illinois - downstate Republicans are often closely aligned with them too).

Rauner aims to ban public labor unions from contributing to campaigns, and he wants to reduce workers' rights to collectively bargain.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz says it's a page straight out of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's playbook.

"I find it interesting that Wisconsin went through this exercise and now has a budget deficit which is a fact that Gov. Rauner didn't seem to want to talk about," the Northbrook Democrat said.

And that was a tepid response; labor leaders' have been fuming.

The list of initiatives starting on a rough path (if not going down a dead end) also included a call for the legislature to self-impose term limits, and a lifting of the state's cap on charter schools.

Even his call for a minimum wage increase -- which Democrats got close to passing last year and are still trying for -- was given a cold reception.

There were gasps of surprise, and applause, when Rauner said that's a priority for him, too.

"We must also help those workers who are barely getting by, by raising the minimum wage," he began.

But then he went on to say "to $10 an hour over the next seven years" -- a timeline that caused many Democrats to laugh, or at least grumble.

That may have been the only noise some Democrats made: many were visibly annoyed throughout the address-- never smiling, or applauding. Even if it was something they liked. And there were elements legislators liked, such as Rauner's promise to increase education funding. He also got some cheers, particularly from black and Latino legislators, when he introduced a proposal to increase minority job opportunities via unions.

Business leaders by and large loved what they heard.

For many Republicans, Rauner's agenda is just what they've been waiting so many years to hear.

"I'll just say it's really refreshing to be here, after 12 years, having a Republican addressing the General Assembly at the State of the State address. It was an absolute pleasure," House GOP Leader Jim Durkin said. "Gov. Rauner was very bold, made very direct statements. The type of statements that he ran on. That's what the people of Illinois want to hear, of how we're going to get out of this death spiral ... This is about a long-term plan to transform this building and also the state of Illinois."

Key to what happens now that the opening pitch has been thrown is what the other House leader, the longtime Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, thinks and does.

Unlike his Senate counterpart, Madigan's response was measured; encouraging even.

"I didn't view it as divisive," he said. "I wouldn't characterize anything as a non-starter. Because I agree with the governor, that the state of Illinois needs a lot of work, a lot of attention."

Of course, Madigan says, for whatever Rauner wants to make happen, he'll have to drum up the votes.

"I've known Mr. Rauner before he decided to be a candidate for governor," Madigan said. "He has a lot of strong views on a lot of public issues. He enunciated a lot of those views in the speech today, which he should do. Now those views, those issues, those bills will be before the legislature. And they'll be disposed of by the legislature. Some favorably, and some not favorably. That's the American democratic process."

Madigan says what Rauner and everyone else needs to focus on now, is the budget. Not next year's; this year's. With five months left in the fiscal cycle, money's is already running out.

How the new governor's going to deal with that was noticeably absent from his address. As was any mention of Illinois' underfunded pension systems. Or an answer to where Illinois would get the additional money to give to schools and to pay those extra prison guards.

For that, check back in a couple of weeks. Rauner says he'll unveil his financial plans when he gives another big speech: the budget address, on Feb. 18.