SPRINGFIELD — Members of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee as they sought to advance legislation this past week to change the law on workers compensation claims.
It was one in a series of reform proposals that Rauner has said is sorely needed if the state is to change the way it does business.
One of the representatives sitting at the testimony table was Jennifer Hammer, who was described by her colleague as “the governor’s senior policy adviser.”
It’s an interesting title given that Hammer isn’t being paid by the governor’s office.
Instead, records show, her $115,000 salary is being drawn from the cash-strapped Illinois Department of Human Services, which provides funding for some of the neediest populations in Illinois.
“There’s great irony there,” said Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, who chairs the judiciary panel that Hammer sat before. “I don’t have a problem with her existence, right, that the governor needs her to advise on policy and interact with us. I have no problem with that at all. What it reflects is the need for resources. There are individuals who are trying to pretend that they can function without addressing the revenue question, the resource question, because it’s taboo in politics. It’s not just Democrats that are concerned about that.”
A day before that hearing, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on another case of Rauner “off-shoring” — the practice of paying staffers out of other budgets to make your own budget seem more lean.
In that case, Rauner’s office penned a $250,000 yearly contract with the governor’s hand-picked education secretary, Beth Purvis — to be paid out of the Department of Human Services budget. What’s significant there is that the contract was signed three weeks before the governor’s office authorized $26 million in cuts to services that aided those with autism and epilepsy, among others. After a public furor, that money was later restored, but the agency faces more cuts.
State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who chairs the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee, said he was unaware that DHS was paying Purvis’ salary, calling that “financial trickery” lacking transparency. He then asked Rauner to testify before the panel to explain what happened.
Appearing before reporters, Rauner spoke at length about how he wouldn’t stand for lawmakers leaving town on Sunday without passing essential reforms needed to get Illinois moving ahead.
Since we were on the topic of reform, he was asked about this practice of off-shoring, which numerous governors before him also engaged in. Wasn’t that the old way of doing things that he was going to change?
“Nobody is going to wonder whether we’re having dramatic change in our administration, dramatic change,” Rauner insisted.
Well, people are wondering, at least on this point.
I tried to follow up by asking why not pay Hammer out of the governor’s budget, but Rauner talked right over it.
“We are all about reform. We have assembled the most talented team of leaders that I know of to turn around a state government. I’m very proud of our team. And we are going to drive a transformation. The people of Illinois deserve it. What we can’t do is continue to have unbalanced budgets, spend more than we take in and have our only solution be just continue to raise taxes.”
Continuing, the governor said: “We have to grow our economy. We have to invest in the most important fundamental priorities and to have financial discipline. You know the No. 1 concern after worker’s comp and reforming property taxes? It’s just the lack of confidence the business community has in the state and, frankly, the city of Chicago.”
And he went on.
“We gotta take these issues on. We gotta focus like a laser. We have a financial crisis. . . . ”
“We have an unbalanced budget. . . . We have an economy that’s bleeding jobs.”
As for reforming his own office? We never got that answer.