Rauner Watch – A Recap of 2015

By Mark Garrity

It’s the end of the year so if you have the stomach for it let’s take a look back at Governor Rauner’s first year in office. As it stands now without a budget (that was due on July 1st) the state government is on track to spend about $6 billion more than it takes in because of various state laws that mandate spending, court orders forcing Rauner to fund some agencies and his signing of the Democratic budget proposal for education. That’s more than both Republicans and Democrats want to spend but without a budget there are no compromises to be had to cut costs. 
As everyone knows the temporary income tax increase expired halfway through FY2015 on January 1, 2015 accounting for the shortfall for half the year in FY2015 and all of FY2016 if nothing changes. General Fund revenue in FY2015 (which ended on June 30, 2015) was about $36 billion, while FY2016 revenue will drop to about $32 billion if taxes aren’t raised. Without a budget we’re on track to spend over $38 billion. Rauner’s proposed budget called for spending about $31 billion and the Democrats about $35.5 billion. 
While Rauner admits he will have to pass another income tax hike to replace that revenue, he insists Democrats first submit to his radical “turnaround agenda” which would cripple both public and private unions in the state, wreck the civil court system and end the political careers of the people with whom he’s supposed to be negotiating. Rauner’s demands are clearly political and have nothing to do with the state’s budget. He wants them all as preconditions to any serious budget talks or even his consideration of the revenue side of the equation. Demanding unconditional surrender from the majority in the State Assembly on a bunch of issues that have nothing to do with the state’s fiscal problems isn’t helping his popularity. 
With this stalemate little to nothing has been accomplished all year. Rauner has made various attempts to hurt traditional Democratic constituencies that have backfired in hopes it would pressure the legislature into concessions. He reversed himself on $26 million dollars in social service cuts in April after he was roundly criticized for cutting funding to the Springfield-based Autism Program of Illinois on World Autism Day. He loosened rules he enacted last summer that caused the state to turn away tens of thousands of low-income children from its subsidized child care program. He also backed off plans to reduce the number of people with disabilities who qualify for certain kinds of state assistance. Even though he said he backtracked after discussions with office holders from both parties – some of whom were Republicans who no doubt told him how much more these rash cuts would cost taxpayers in the long run  –  he deemed them “compromises” and called on Democrats to once again cave in on some of his demands that have nothing to do with state spending and everything to do with hurting Democrats and people who depend on them.  
Democrats weren’t immune to mistakes either. In early September Speaker Madigan called for a vote to override Rauner’s veto of a bill that would send negotiations between the governor and unions to arbitration if they broke down and another bill to restore the childcare credits so important to many working families. Both lost when Ken Dunkin, a Democratic house rep from the Fifth District did not show up to vote, choosing to remain in New York City where he says he took children to see the US Open tennis tournament. Dunkin, never a Madigan favorite, is expected to earn a well financed primary challenger while he himself will probably be looking to Rauner and friends to back his campaign if he runs again. In any event Madigan’s reputation for invincibility, deserved or not, is gone. 
In October three good government groups asked the governor and the four top legislative leaders of the Assembly to meet in a public setting to hash out a budget. While Rauner was right – that no one wants to negotiate in front of TV cameras – all agreed to meet.   
There have been three of these meetings so far, though apparently nothing new has come from them.  Mike Madigan didn’t attend the last meeting on December 17th because of a “scheduling conflict”. Some may see that as a snub and a sign talks are going nowhere but that’s not necessarily the case. Madigan traditionally takes that week off just before the holidays for family time and his daughter Tiffany gave birth to a baby boy the day before.  An excused absence if there ever was one. From news accounts of that meeting they discussed Rauner’s agenda but little in the way of budget issues anyway. 
On December 8th Governor Rauner, in a speech to Illinois Manufacturers’ Association told hundreds of state business leaders that the meetings with the “Four Tops” are all for show, everyone knows each others’ positions, so nothing will change until the new year. According to him it will take super majorities in both houses to pass anything since Madigan can no longer reliably muster such majorities in the house as we saw with the September votes on childcare and the arbitration veto override. It’s doubtful any really tough votes will be taken until after the March primary and hopefully there can be a budget by April.
So here we are at year’s end and nothing has changed. We have a $6 billion budget gap and the backlog of bills has grown from $4 billion to $8 billion. 
Meanwhile Governor Rauner refuses to consider new revenues or even spending cuts that everyone agrees on unless Democrats sacrifice unions and surrender to him unconditionally. He apparently thinks he has that power. 

One word he used repeatedly in that speech to the IMA is “perseverance”. He plans to ride this out – no matter the cost to taxpayers, or the kids who may have to drop out of college without their grants, or seniors who will lose their community care services that keep them in their own homes and out of very expensive nursing homes – unless he gets his way. There’s no reason not to believe him.

He thinks he can buy himself a legislature that will give him everything he wants next November. He certainly will be able to outspend us in 2016 just like he did in 2014. Ken Griffin, the richest man in Illinois, gave him $13.6 million dollars in the last election cycle. That’s more than all the unions put together gave Pat Quinn so it’s pretty daunting.  But what Rauner and his incredibly rich friends can’t buy is good people to enact bad laws. They can’t buy the votes of people who believe in democracy and government that can and should be a force for good in people’s lives. We will have to outwork and outlast him. We can do that. We’ve done it before.