CHAMPAIGN — With one of their own in the governor’s mansion, Illinois business leaders have a long wish list for wealthy venture capitalist Bruce Rauner. It includes cuts to high workers’ compensation costs, fewer regulations and a focused effort to improve worker training.
But many also are prepared to make a surprising concession: The $2 billion budget deficit the Republican has inherited will require more than just spending cuts. It’ll likely require more revenue, possibly from taxes.
“I’m not in favor of a tax increase, but there’s going to have to be some way to generate funds,” said Dennis Larson, executive vice president of the Central Illinois Builders, a trade group.
A spokesman for a key state union declined to comment on the No. 1 business wish, changes in workers’ compensation. He said the American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees always tries to get along with governors, even when they disagree, but warned the state can’t keep cutting spending without seriously hurting core services.
“Those (state employee) ranks have been slashed by more than 30 percent over the last decade,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said.
Business leaders also hope Rauner takes charge quickly to tackle other priorities. Here’s a fuller picture of what business interests would like to see:
Company leaders are typically among the fiercest proponents of tax cuts. But while many say they’d like to see changes such as the elimination of the state’s franchise tax, they also say the state has few options to generate much-needed money. “You can’t continually cut state government,” Larson said.
Rauner has said he would like to eliminate some sales tax exemptions, and let income tax rates fall to levels before Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2011 temporary increase, which will gradually roll back over the next four years.
But whatever happens, it needs to happen soon, Illinois Manufacturers’ Association President Gregory Baise said.
“Manufacturers want certainty. They want a tax structure that they know is going to be in place and they can plan,” Baise said. “We may not like the answers the governor is going to come up with. We understand that.”
Baise wasn’t alone in his belief that Rauner needs to provide clear direction — and quickly.
Leaders in the business community say they want to see leadership, starting with a commitment to fiscal responsibility.
First, “bring our revenues in line with expenditures,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Todd Maisch said. “But No. 2, show really every citizen of Illinois that the political process can work.”
He and others would also like Rauner to finally address what they see as over-regulation in Illinois, to make the business climate more inviting.
Rauner’s predecessors, Democrats Quinn and Rod Blagojevich, never offered clear direction on the economy, Baise added, at least not one that worked for business.
Quinn signed changes into law in 2011 that were designed to decrease the costs of one of the country’s most costly workers’ compensation systems. The state Department of Insurance says the rates employers pay have fallen substantially since then.
But during his campaign, Rauner said he’d like to go further.
Illinois last year still had the seventh-highest rates in the country, according to the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, which compiles rates for all 50 states every two years.
“It’s a killer for new jobs here in the state of Illinois,” said John Goetz, the owner of R.D. Lawrence Construction Co. in Springfield.
Goetz said his company has an annual payroll of about $2.5 million and spends about $140,000 a year on workers’ compensation insurance.
The construction industry says it would like to see another state construction-spending bill soon.
Quinn’s six-year, $31 billion Illinois Jobs Now program was one thing from the Democrat that business leaders liked, but it ended last year after funding everything from new roads to long-overdue renovation work at the University of Illinois’ Lincoln Hall, the 104-year-old building that is among the oldest on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Skilled laborers are in short supply, the state’s business leaders said, and Maisch believes it’s up to the government to get involved with workforce training.
“I’ve got members who’ve gone into their local schools and said ‘We’ve got a real need for welders. Can we help you develop a program that will help you help people develop a healthy career as a welder?’” he said.
Some community colleges are doing a good job of working with employers, he said, but a statewide initiative would make the most of Illinois’ community college system.
DAVID MERCER, Associated Press