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Campaign Finance Reform

In this March 20, 2018 file photo, Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner addresses the crowd after winning the Republican primary election in Chicago. As Illinois braces itself for what's primed to become the most-expensive governor's race in U.S. history, fair elections advocates are calling for an end to lavish spending in a state often known as the "wild west" of campaign finance. 

Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — As Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats enter the final weeks of lawmakers' spring session, the governor has for now set aside the legislative wish list he touted as a top priority in the first three years of his term.

Gone are the dire warnings that a state budget plan that doesn't include Rauner's keystone "turnaround agenda" won't "move the needle" enough to keep businesses in Illinois. The governor also hasn't yet threatened to veto a spending plan that doesn't include his priorities, and he recently referred to making a budget as "its own process."

A lot can change before May 31, when lawmakers typically hope to have a state budget done, allowing them to go home and campaign. But Rauner so far has adopted a different public posture in the first set of budget talks since about a dozen Republicans joined Democrats last summer to raise income taxes and end a two-year impasse.

Rauner has outlined priorities including a balanced budget with no new taxes, and he wants lawmakers to set projections for how much money the state will take in. That's a significant departure from earlier in his term, when the governor would insist on a budget with "structural reforms" like a property tax freeze or term limits on politicians. Without those changes, lawmakers would just be "nibbling around the edges" of Illinois' massive financial problems, Rauner would say.

Now, key Rauner ally House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said GOP lawmakers are "desperately looking to resolve whatever differences over the next three weeks and to leave town at the end of May with a negotiated balanced budget."

"Issues regarding pension reform, property tax relief, work comp always and will continue to be priorities of the governor and also of my caucus," Durkin said. "We can do both at the same time, but right now when we are at the second week of May, all attention should be towards leaving Springfield with a negotiated balanced budget."

Each year has its own unique dynamics that shape how -- and when -- the battle lines are drawn.

This year, the November election is looming. Another lengthy and chaotic budget stalemate could cast a cloud over both the governor's re-election campaign and Democrats led by Rauner nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan. Last time, Democrats worked to blame the governor after he vetoed a 2015 budget that was billions of dollars out of balance and also didn't contain any of his "turnaround agenda" demands. He, in turn, accused them of holding out for a tax hike.

The blame game is likely to accompany any budget standoff again this year. This time, though, lawmakers already enacted an income tax increase last summer, so Rauner doesn't have the prospect of a new one to rail against or leverage to achieve his legislative goals. Rauner has campaigned on a pledge to roll back the new income tax rates and told voters Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker will raise them. But he hasn't made lower taxes a condition of budget talks.

Still, many of the factors that complicated the budget negotiations of the past remain at play. Even with the extra tax hike money, the state is projected to run a $3 billion deficit. The state's pile of unpaid bills is about $7 billion. And cutting spending can be difficult because much of what the state pays out is for programs required by law and education funding that neither side wants to reduce.

There's been no sign that this year's budget talks have been more fruitful, or that Democrats are more willing to collaborate with the Republican governor now that his agenda items have been sidelined. For them, there also are political factors at play.

After suffering defeats in the past two elections, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on voter angst over President Donald Trump. And Rauner has appeared vulnerable after he just narrowly overcame a primary challenge and continues to struggle to unify his Republican base.

"I think he's learned that he obviously hasn't been successful until now and that this year he's not going to look good if we spend the whole summer here with him campaigning without money for schools, for example," Senate President John Cullerton said.

And Democrats say they remain distrustful of the governor and are reluctant to take any overtures toward compromise seriously.

Take, for example, Rauner's request that lawmakers adopt a revenue estimate that says how much money the state has to spend this year. Doing so is required under state law, but lawmakers have routinely ignored the requirement. Instead, they pass spending plans that are based on ballpark estimates of money the state is likely to raise, or save, over the course of a budget year.

This year, Democrats have balked at Rauner's request that they adopt an estimate, contending that the estimates provide an incomplete picture of the money that might be available to the state.

"It seems like some kind of a trap," Cullerton said of the governor's request, adding that after years of budget fights, "you get cynical."

"We're wondering, why is it so important?" Cullerton said. "Does he think that if we give a number then we can't spend any more than that and that's somehow some kind of a spending cap? It's hard to tell."

Democrats also have questioned the governor's sincerity in enacting pension cost savings he proposed in his budget blueprint, pointing out that Republicans have yet to introduce legislation that would make the necessary changes.

Rauner's blueprint this year was more traditional than his previous budget proposals. He spelled out where he would spend and where he would cut to make the math pencil out. Part of that plan is to shift pension costs away from the state and onto school districts, slash health insurance benefits for retirees and reduce Medicaid rates for doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, for a total savings of $1.5 billion. Rauner also wants to take $600 million from specialized funds that would not be repaid. He also proposed spending money generated by the tax hike he opposed.

While Democrats have scoffed at the plan and an independent budget watchdog group has called it "precariously balanced," it is a starting point for talks. While the pension cost shift proposal would have ripple effects on property taxes and could put pressure on local collective bargaining rights -- two items that have played a central role in Rauner's "turnaround agenda" -- the budget itself is not tied to those proposals. And Madigan has called for the cost shift in the past.

"I am very open to whatever changes they would like to make," Rauner said this month after touring a Springfield furniture business. "I'm very open to any new modifications, any adjustments, any changes. The key is no new taxes and a truly balanced full-year budget."

Monique Garcia contributed from Springfield.

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