Gov. Bruce Rauner delivered a mostly predictable State of the State address Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to work together to fix Illinois’ many fiscal issues while also pushing familiar policies that target his nemesis in the General Assembly, House Speaker Michael Madigan.
In front of a joint session of the legislature, the governor received a Bronx cheer when he said he planned to introduce a balanced budget in the coming weeks. While Rauner has claimed to submit balanced budgets in the past, Democrats and some Republicans say that’s not true.
“This year, I hope you guys will pass it instead of ignoring it,” Rauner said in response to the mock ovation, which quickly turned to groans.
Rauner said leaders from both parties worked together in the fall to pitch Chicago to online retail giant Amazon. Chicago is among the finalists hoping to land Amazon’s second North American headquarters.
“Governor, mayor, General Assembly, city council, businesses and nonprofits, Republicans and Democrats collaborated to compete for 15 years of growth, with 168,000 potential jobs and $129 billion in cumulative new GDP,” he said.
There are more opportunities to pursue, Rauner said, but to be successful, political opponents will have to work together.
“It takes a collaborative effort, a forget-about-the-politics-and-roll-up-our-sleeves kind of approach,” he said. “It requires a laser-like focus on economic development and job creation and a bipartisan dedication to restore public trust.”
Rauner spent much of his address on familiar themes: The need for substantive economic reforms to help grow jobs, and property tax relief to help overly burdened homeowners and businesses.
“Home values in some parts of our state are half what they were 10 years ago, yet property taxes are twice as high,” Rauner said. “Small businesses often have to cut staff to pay their taxes. Elderly couples on fixed incomes are too often pushed out of their homes because they cannot afford their property taxes.”
Targeting Madigan, who has been House speaker for all but two years since 1983, the governor again called for term limits.
“Eighty percent of the state’s voters want term limits,” Rauner said. “The other 20 percent, it seems, are seated in this chamber and in elected Illinois courts. It is past time to make this good governance move. Put term limits on the ballot and let the people decide.”
Rauner also referenced an executive order he signed two weeks ago that prevents elected legislators from practicing before the state property tax appeal board. Both Madigan and Democratic Senate President John Cullerton are tax attorneys.
On jobs, Rauner said the state has “planted the seeds of growth in our economy.”
“We’ve put 120,000 people to work. We’ve brought and kept business here: Amazon, General Mills, Nucor Steel, Brandt Industries and many more,” he said.
In response, Wirepoints.com founder Mark Glennon, a former venture capitalist, disagreed with the governor.
“Our job growth has been horribly underperforming compared to other states,” Glennon said. “We haven’t planted seeds. We haven’t even taken that first step. … Unfortunately, I’m not terribly optimistic based on what I heard today.”
Illinois has had slow jobs growth and a higher unemployment rate than the national average. One example is manufacturing jobs. President Donald Trump touted 200,000 new manufacturing jobs added across the county in all of 2017 during his Tuesday State of the Union address, but Illinois snagged only 7,700 of those manufacturing jobs while neighboring states’ gains outpaced Illinois’.
Just as Rauner didn’t offer much new, Democrats’ response also was largely predictable.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, delivered House Democrats’ official response, critizing the governor for not working with the General Assembly and for the state’s fiscal woes.
“Time and again the governor has refused to work with us to pass a balanced budget,” Lang said. “He forced the state into budgetary chaos for more than 700 days,” referencing a two-year standoff between Rauner and the General Assembly that led to last summer’s $5 billion income tax increase over the governor’s veto.
Calling Rauner an absentee governor, Lang said he has a choice.
“He can choose to continue down his path of destruction. He can abdicate his constitutional responsibilities,” Lang said. “If that is his choice, the General Assembly will continue to move forward without him.”
At a news conference, Cullerton’s comments echoed those of Lang.
“We haven’t had a leaders’ meeting with the governor in more than a year. At the end of the day, I don’t care if he’s a lone wolf or a head cheerleader, what the state needs is a governor to take charge engage and do the job, and that just hasn’t happened.”
Wednesday’s address, Rauner’s fourth, comes amid a divisive gubernatorial campaign in which the first-term governor faces a primary challenge from a former supporter.
Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, decided to run in the March 20 Republican primary after she says Rauner abandoned his own party over issues such as spending, immigration and taxpayer-funded abortions. On the Democrats’ side, billionaire J.B Pritzker has launched an expensive ad campaign that targets Rauner even though Pritzker has several primary opponents.
During his address, Rauner acknowledged the #MeToo movement that swept the country last fall in the wake of allegations of rampant sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media and Springfield. He announced he will sign an executive order that will strengthen the policies that ensure all government employees under his jurisdiction have reliable and responsive outlets for reporting acts of sexual misconduct.
“The order creates a chief compliance office in the executive branch; stipulates reviews of allegations in 10 days or less; and requires training on best investigation practices by the end of this year, and every two years thereafter,” Rauner said. “These are powerful protections that the legislature should emulate.”
Many lawmakers and staff wore black Wednesday in a show of support for women at the capitol and across Illinois who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
Rauner’s executive order announcement comes a week after a newly appointed legislative inspector general all but cleared a state senator of sexual harassment allegations leveled during a dramatic House committee hearing last fall.
Rauner is scheduled to deliver his budget address in front of both chambers on Feb. 14. The only hints he gave on what would be in his budget were some of the same reforms he’s pushed for in the past.
“I don’t know anyone in this chamber, or in this state, who isn’t frustrated when we spend beyond our means, or borrow to cover deficits, or let pension issues go unresolved,” Rauner said.
Despite last year’s tax increase, Illinois’ current budget is more than $2 billion out of whack. The state’s pension systems are underfunded by more than $130 billion and Illinois has the highest workers’ compensation costs in the Midwest.
“Rhode Island reformed its pensions. California enacted term limits,” Rauner said. “Massachusetts changed its group health plans and lowered workers’ comp rates. We have the power to take similar steps. The question is whether we have the will to take them.”
Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants, sided with Rauner’s reform efforts in his response to the State of the State address.
“Retailers are a critical economic engine for the state, but our industry continues to operate on razor thin margins as regulations, mandates and taxes continue to squeeze Main Street retailers,” Karr said. “We share the governor’s belief that more business reforms are needed to lift up our state, which will only bolster productivity, economic growth and wages.”
Glennon wasn’t optimistic that the budget Rauner proposes will truly be balanced.
“I can only imagine that it’s going to have a bunch of phony savings in it, and it’s not going to be balanced,” Glennon said.
This story is by Dan McCaleb, news director of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. Contact Dan at [email protected]