Three-hundred sixty-five days into his first term as governor, Republican Bruce Rauner has yet to sign a state budget, is in a political standoff with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and is battling with the state government’s largest labor union, whose members are working without a contract.
But despite those problems, Rauner says the ideas in his controversial — and, to date, politically paralyzing — “turnaround agenda” are resonating not only with his Republican counterparts, but also with Chicago Democrats, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“Many members of the General Assembly, in private, along with the mayor of Chicago, in private, agree that much of our agenda makes sense,” Rauner told the Chicago Sun-Times Monday, the day before the first anniversary of his taking his oath of office.
Later, he said, “Frankly, if the mayor and the [Senate] President [John Cullerton] were willing to do in public what they talk about in private, I think we’d have worked something out by now. But they are afraid to buck the speaker.”
When asked to name the names of other Democrats in his corner, Rauner sidestepped the question.
“There are many …” he said before pausing briefly. “Publicly?” he then asked.
The governor then continued: “There are, I’ll say, many in the Legislature — in private — and there are many business Democrats in Chicago who are very supportive of us. And they’re saying ‘Stay strong. Don’t back down.’ People know we need change.”
Late Monday, Emanuel press secretary Kelley Quinn emailed a statement blasting Rauner’s remarks.
“The governor chose to commemorate his first year in office, but rather than celebrating what happened, the year will be remembered for what didn’t happen,” Quinn said. “Illinois is one of only two states without a budget . . . $7 billion in bills that haven’t been paid and college students who are still waiting for their state aid money. With a record like that, it should come as no surprise that he wants to pass the blame to others.”
Rauner spoke with the Sun-Times by telephone as he’s preparing to roll out a spending plan for the 2016-17 budget year, which begins July 1, at a time when the state has yet to approve a budget for 2015-16.
In this edited transcript, the governor defends his stance that a long-term budget solution must include parts of his turnaround agenda, which Democratic-leaning labor unions have vehemently opposed. He also has harsh words for Emanuel, calling the mayor’s strategy to bail out the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools “ludicrous.”
Q: Why wouldn’t you tell the public where you went for holiday vacation before you left?
A: “Because we were traveling with our kids, I didn’t want it all over the Internet where we were going. And so we just didn’t talk about the location. That’s it. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. And once I got home I told people where we were.”
Q: You’re a public servant. … Do you understand where these questions come from?
A: “Actually, I really don’t. The one thing I can tell you is I’m a workaholic. Other than Christmas Day and the last half of Christmas Eve, I was on the phone with our team every day. I actually came back four days early to deal with the flooding problem. To me, the safety of our kids comes first. I appreciate the media likes to spin stuff up, but this is just goofy. It’s a silly thing to worry about.”
Q: You’ve objected in the past to releasing your schedules. This has been the subject of litigation (a judge ruled last week the schedules should be made public). What’s your take on this now?
A: “I’m sort-of sick of arguing about it. We’re now putting out my calendar and all that now. … I hold sensitive meetings to recruit companies here, and they don’t want that on the Internet and in the public. And I hold certain sensitive negotiations with politicians and leaders on reforms, and they don’t want public that we’re meeting. I’ve got to do my job effectively. But we’re going to put out my schedule with what’s disclosable — and we’ll just move past all this. To me, it’s a distraction.”
Q: Is your goal to get the information out there as soon as possible?
A: “I think we’re doing that. I don’t know the exact detail of it.”
Q: Where do you stand as far as working with the city to avoid layoffs at the Chicago Public Schools?
A: “We have proposed, specifically — and it’s in writing and in our bills — major financial assistance to the Chicago Public Schools, and we have offered major structural reforms that would allow CPS as well as the city government of Chicago to save hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. … Our turnaround agenda, our reforms, as well as our proposals would help with the teachers’ pensions.”
Q: The turnaround agenda seems not be turning anywhere. It seems to be stuck …
A: “That’s the core issue. I’m massively disappointed in the mayor for a number of reasons. … I’m hugely disappointed in his handling of these police shootings. It’s just horrible how he’s handled it. But, in terms of fighting for reforms for his city, the mayor has been completely missing. He is not fighting for reforms for his city. … It’s a major failure on his part.”
Q: But at what point is it your responsibility to try to strike a compromise on this? Our paper and others have documented taxpayer abuses involving public-employee unions. But your turnaround agenda seems to go beyond that.
A: “As part of our compromises – and we’ve compromised 20 different times – we took empowerment zones, right-to-work zones, off the table many months ago. And we’ve taken other things off the table …”
Q: Such as … ?
A: “We’ve tried to compromise repeatedly. And, in terms of our reform agenda, for any city, any county in the state that wants to pay higher taxes for prevailing wage or to collectively bargain everything, I’m saying terrific, keep it. … Give more money to your government unions, fine. … All I’m asking is for the communities that want to change and want to get more value and grow their economies and improve their schools and want to do that the way I’m proposing, let them choose that. … I think you’ll find the communities that choose freedom and less government and our reforms are going to boom.”
Q: But we’re heading on seven months into this fiscal year without a state budget and you’ve got to give a budget address for the next fiscal year relatively soon. How do you try to move the process forward?
A: “It’s through compromise and structural change. The folks who say just put in a massive tax hike to solve the problem and then move on to other stuff later, all you have to do is look at what happened in the last tax hike, and you know that’s a mistake. . . . Stunningly bad. … So that’s not the answer. And if it was the answer, the General Assembly would just pass it. They have a [Democratic] supermajority. . . .
“A tax hike is not the answer, and many members of the General Assembly, in private, along with the mayor of Chicago, in private, agree that much of our agenda makes sense.”
Q: So what’s the hold-up?
A: “The speaker of the House has so far refused any compromise to any level. … He doesn’t frankly care about policy or a good outcome for the people of Illinois. It’s always about what’s the spin for the next election. That’s always his focus. But this time he’s way more focused on it than he usually is. I don’t know why. But he’s not willing to talk about any compromises. And, you know what, leadership is compromise. Politics is compromise. We should have bipartisan compromise. And so far, we’re getting some willingness to compromise from legislative members. But those who are not willing to buck the speaker — are afraid of him or want to continue to take his money from his [campaign] funds — they’re just staying silent.”
Q: Is there anybody on the Democratic side who you can single out as being a supporter of your turnaround agenda publicly?
A: “There are many. . . . Publicly? There are, I’ll say, many in the Legislature — in private — and there are many business democrats in Chicago who are very supportive of us. And they’re saying, ‘Stay strong, Don’t back down.’ People know we need change.”
Q: Government is continuing to run without a budget more than half the fiscal year now. But you’ve got social service agencies complaining about their funding being held up. At what point, as governor, do you have to say enough is enough?
A: “The reality is the government is being run by court order and consent decree, and nobody’s too much up in arms. The reality is we haven’t had a balanced budget, ever, that I can tell. In decades. This is not like this is some new condition for Illinois.
“It’s such a disappointment the way the speaker and the General Assembly have done nothing. … They’ve passed 500 bills that did virtually nothing other than say they want to spend money that we don’t have. And we have a pension crisis and they haven’t done a pension bill. … My resolution for the General Assembly? This year, let’s only pass 50 bills, but let’s make ’em 50 that count.”
Q: Did you underestimate what relations with Madigan, and the mayor, would be like?
A: “No, not at all. I have a cordial respectful working relationship and communication with the speaker and the mayor and the [Senate] president [John Cullerton]. And frankly if the mayor and the president were willing to do in public what they talk about in private, I think we’d have worked something out by now. But they are afraid to buck the speaker. And the speaker has really not been willing to negotiate much of anything since May.”
Q: How much does AFSCME, the state’s largest labor union, factor into Madigan’s positions? You’re still negotiating that contract . . .
A: “I don’t know the answer. I do know that AFCSME tried to take me out of the negotiations and give it to a pro-labor arbitrator to give them what they want. The speaker, they tried to pass that bill and they came within one vote of it. It was horrible legislation.”
Q: Do you foresee state workers going on strike?
A: “I certainly hope not. We’ve tried to negotiate in good faith. We’ve had 67 days of negotiations with them. 67 sessions. We’ve proposed all kinds of ideas. All kinds of compromises . . . We’ve agreed with 17 other unions on exactly the type of proposals we’re proposing to AFSCME. They rejected everything.”
Q: Will CPS teachers strike? If so, do you see yourself bearing any responsibility?
“I don’t know whether they’ll strike. . . . I’ve proposed reforms on local control that could help fix and bring those problems to resolution without a strike. … I’ve proposed all kinds of assistance for Chicago Public Schools. So far the mayor has rejected our assistance. It’s amazing to me: the mayor has just basically publicly said ‘Hurry up and put a massive tax hike on the people of Illinois and send me some of the cash as a bailout.’ It’s stunningly unrealistic and irresponsible. It’s ludicrous.”