Editorial: Hey, Governor, it ain’t workin’

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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner greets President Barack Obama upon arrival at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Illinois on Wednesday. /Getty Images

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You don’t smash the engine to make a car go faster, yet that is what Gov. Bruce Rauner is doing to Chicago, the engine of Illinois.

For more than a year, Gov. Rauner has been inflicting permanent damage on one of America’s great cities — and so too, then, on the entire State of Illinois — by holding the city hostage to a rigid “turnaround” agenda that is going nowhere. Rauner charged into office promising dramatic pro-business, anti-union reforms, but he’s fast shaping up as one of the least successful and most politically inept governors in the state’s history.

It is easy to say “a pox on both your houses,” as we have in the past, laying blame equally on the governor and the Democratic leaders of the state Legislature, especially House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. And certainly, as President Obama said in his speech to the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, there is a need across the political spectrum for “civility and compromise.”

But increasingly, with respect to Gov. Rauner, that is a false equivalency.

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Both Democratic and Republican leaders over decades are to blame for the financial mess Illinois finds itself in, failing to sufficiently fund pensions and cutting overly generous deals with public employee unions. Nobody has clean hands. But Rauner’s performance as governor lies at the heart of the problem now. His largely inflexible demands are unrealistic and his coercive tactics ineffectual. His harsh rhetoric has made constructive compromise — the heart and soul of politics if not the private equity business — all the more difficult.

The irony here is that Rauner is championing some good stuff for which he might possibly, over time, cobble together bipartisan support. We’re with him on the need to reform the way legislative maps are drawn to make elections more competitive. We see merit in term limits for legislators. There’s a good argument that Illinois could go further in reforming its worker’s comp laws.

But Rauner came to Springfield and demanded it all, right away. Without even a nod to political realities, he front-loaded his entire agenda into the first year of his four-year term. And we’re troubled by his seeming obsession with curtailing the power of unions; is it so complete that he cannot see that he will never get a right-to-work law through the General Assembly?

This is Illinois, where Democrats control the Legislature — and more than a few Republicans stand with the unions, too. This is not Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker, one of Rauner’s role models, works with a compliant Republican legislature.

Bruce Rauner governs as if he were still a CEO dictating to underlings. It ain’t workin’.

Chicago, frankly, can’t take much more of this. Businesses are leaving or declining to set up shop here, wary of the uncertainties surrounding schools, higher education, taxes and public services. Even as the economy improves elsewhere across the nation, Chicago is losing or missing out on new jobs in every sector, from construction to white collar. Three weeks ago, as now widely lamented, General Electric took a pass on moving its headquarters to Chicago because, as one executive put it, “It seemed too big a risk.”

Our city’s safety net of basic social services is being shredded by a state budget impasse that is eight months old. Children, the poor, the elderly and the disabled are being harmed. And it’s bad for business. People like to live and work in a place that demonstrates a commitment to basic human decency.

When Lutheran Social Services must shut down 30 programs serving almost 5,000 people because the state won’t pay its bills, that’s not basic human decency.

Twice now Rauner has done damage to efforts by Chicago Public Schools to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars at a reasonable rate — money desperately needed to keep the schools open while CPS attempts to resolve its long-term financial problems.

In late January, the governor announced the state would “take over” the city’s public schools, sending a message to Wall Street that CPS was a risky mess. CPS put off its efforts to borrow.

A week later, when CPS again was negotiating a bond issue, Rauner again made a show of calling for a state takeover of the schools, which has zero chance of happening.

What was the damage from the governor’s grenade? Instead of borrowing $875 million, CPS scaled back the bond issue to $725 million. And instead of getting the 7.75 percent rate offered the week before, CPS was forced to borrow at a far more expensive rate of 8.5 percent.

Rauner’s frequent suggestion that CPS declare bankruptcy is in itself casually clueless. Bankruptcy can be a smart move in the private sector, but less so in the public sector. Bankruptcy would not necessarily save CPS significant money and, more to the point, families with options would bolt for the suburbs. No parent wants to send a child to a bankrupt school.

The fair assumption is that Rauner’s real motivation is to push the schools into bankruptcy to break the teachers’ union. If so, he will fail. But he is driving folks not entirely sympathetic to unions — folks such as Madigan — further into their corner.

Rauner’s grenades may not be intentional. Maybe he’s just a rookie pol goofing up. That would explain why the governor two weeks ago stepped to the microphones and announced that he and Senate President John Cullerton had come to agreement on a big pension reform plan. The two men had in fact agreed to a deal, but not exactly the one described by the governor, forcing Cullerton to shoot him down by press release. So much for trust, the bread and butter of politics.

Exacerbating Rauner’s inability to get anything done has been his penchant for ripping political opponents in personal terms. Most recently, he has said Mayor Rahm Emanuel “caved” when negotiating a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union, and he has said he’s “very disappointed” in how the mayor has handled a white-hot police misconduct scandal. Rauner added that he would sign legislation allowing Chicagoans to recall their mayor.

That would be the very definition of throwing a supposed friend under a bus.

Bruce Rauner is a governor now, not a CEO, in a politically divided state. He can’t tell everybody what to do. The only road forward is through compromise.

Gov. Rauner had better figure that out before it’s too late. Chicago, the engine of Illinois, needs fixing, not a beating.

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