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Rauner laughs off ‘Groundhog Day’ as budget deadline looms

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to reporters in his office at the Illinois State Capitol Monday. Looking on is Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, center, and Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, right. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

When Gov. Bruce Rauner was asked Monday whether Illinois is experiencing a “Groundhog Day,” he laughed.

“It’s a good movie, isn’t it?” Rauner asked reporters in his Springfield office. Then his smile faded.

“Oh, it’s terrible. There’s no reason. There’s no excuse we can’t have a balanced budget — which we haven’t had in years — …. and a strongly growing economy. We can get there,” Rauner said.

The governor said this year is different because Democrats “in private” are saying a grand compromise is “the right thing to do.” Last year, the state began its fiscal year on July 1 with no operating budget in place — and no sign of a compromise between the first-year Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Rather, the impasse only intensified.

With the state billions of dollars in debt, the pressure is on for lawmakers to end the 11-month long budget impasse with just seven more days left in the regular legislative session.

And although nothing is certain — and many are saying a resolution is not in the cards this session — education funding seems to be a top priority for lawmakers and the governor. Rauner has long touted the importance of funding schools and last year signed a K-12 education bill despite not having a budget. He wants education spending to be included in a “grand compromise.”

Rauner reiterated that priority on Monday, as he stood next to Republican leaders and members of the business community in pushing for a budget that includes new revenue, spending cuts and reforms from his “Turnaround Agenda.”

“No matter what, we should have a clean school funding bill so our schools can know what’s coming and can open on time,” Rauner said in his Springfield office. “There is no excuse to hold up our schools or hold our schools hostage for this budget process.”

But nothing is simple when it comes to education funding. Rauner supports a Senate and House bill that ends the practice of school aid being affected by state cuts and fully funds schools for the first time in seven years. But he also said in his budget address that no school district should lose money.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton has spoken out about Rauner’s plan, saying Chicago loses $74 million under the formula, as do schools in Naperville and East Saint Louis. Cullerton supports Sen. Andy Manar’s school funding bill, which seeks to put CPS on equal footing with other districts and direct funds towards the neediest districts. It also has a provision to ensure districts don’t lose money in the first years of the new formula, and tries to give them time to make up for a loss in state aid.

Many Downstate Republicans won’t support a new formula that gives their rural districts less, while Democrats from Chicago won’t support a deal that doesn’t help CPS.

Besides funding schools, Rauner’s priorities include growing the economy and funding human services. He’s also said he won’t approve a budget that spends more than the state can afford.

To realize some of Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” goals, Republican leaders are pushing for workers compensation reform and collective bargaining reforms with a property tax freeze. Illinois Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno on Monday called the impasse a fight for the state’s “soul.”

“This is not just a battle of wills. We are really fighting for the very soul of the state,” Radogno said.

She urged Democrats to “engage” with Republicans on compromising and making a plan that will set the state on a path to financial health, starting with workers compensation reform. She said she won’t support tax increases without reforms.

And Democrats are working to prioritize funding for education and social service agencies, while trying to protect union workers.

After a meeting with Rauner and the leaders last week, Madigan said he was open to changes on workers compensation, a property tax freeze and pension reform. But then he blasted Rauner in a statement for continuing to push his “personal agenda.”

Besides the regular session, rank and file legislators are working behind closed doors in working groups to hash out the budget, including talking about a tax increase, collective bargaining, workers compensation, pension reform, government consolidation and property taxes.

Lawmakers are also working to pass a bevy of bills early this week — including numerous criminal justice reform bills. Budget talks are expected to heat up during Wednesday’s session. Lawmakers have until May 31 to pass a budget with a simple majority. After that, they’ll need a super majority and they’ll have to begin a summer session, just like last year.

Sound a little bit like “Groundhog Day?”