Rauner’s budget speech draws mix of support, signs and snickers

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Gov. Bruce Rauner (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD— Amid laughter from some Democrats, a broken teleprompter and signs calling his budget address “fake news,” Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday urged lawmakers to push forward with a Senate budget package and stop “pointing fingers.”

Later, the Republican governor presented a budget proposal that presses for revenue, reforms and cuts to fill a gaping $7.2 billion hole.

Rauner’s budget proposal — deemed “balanced” by his budget director — is reliant upon on the Senate plan passing. Within the budget proposal is a mixture of spending cuts, revenue and projected economic growth to try to reach a magic number of nearly $4.6 billion. The governor is seeking to fill the remaining $2.7 billion plus by getting legislative authority to make cuts.

“His preferred option is to continue to work with the General Assembly,” state budget director Scott Harry said during a briefing with reporters.

The reliance on the plan — as well as lack of specifics in his budget address — had some Democrats launching attacks. Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said Rauner has “shirked his constitutional duty.” And State Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, said Rauner “shied away from the opportunity to lead.”

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said the governor failed to present a balanced budget for the “third straight year.”

But during his address, Rauner tried to put the past — two years of a budget impasse and partisan bickering — aside.

“This isn’t about pointing fingers or assigning blame,” the governor said to some laughter from Democrats during his address in the Illinois House chambers. “We are where we are.  It’s not about the past; it’s about how we move forward together.”

Nevertheless, there were some partisan games ahead of the address. Just before the speech, House Republicans urged Madigan to remove four signs that were taped onto podiums on the Democratic side. They read “Rauner budget = fake news” and “Rauner budget = alternative facts.”

Madigan’s response?

“I think they’re within their rights to decide whether they want to put a sign up or anything else,” he said.

RELATED: Brown: Rauner doing no favors for Senate leaders — or schools

Rauner used a portion of his budget address to encourage the Illinois General Assembly to pass the Senate “grand bargain” package, which includes many of his preferred reforms, including pension reform and workers’ compensation changes.

“Now is the time to seize the moment — build on the progress made in recent weeks — and right our ship of state,” Rauner said. “Together, we can make Illinois more competitive and more compassionate. We can make the necessary changes to fix our broken system.”

Rauner had been mum publicly about the Senate plan. Wednesday marked the first time he ventured into what he supports within the package of bills — which began after talks between Rauner and Madigan broke down in December.

While not listing specifics of the income tax hike, the governor asked for a permanent property tax freeze in Illinois, saying a temporary freeze alongside an income tax hike is “just not fair to hard-working taxpayers across the state.” The Senate plan has a temporary freeze attached.

Rauner spoke of his support for broadening the sales tax base to mirror Wisconsin’s — but said he won’t support a tax on groceries and medicine, or a tax on retirement incomes. He also spoke of his support for raising the earned income tax credit and the research and development tax credit.

Senators had discussed the idea of removing the state sales tax exemption from food and drugs, but that change never made it into an amendment of the plan’s revenue bill.

The revenue bill hopes to generate $6.5 billion, the bulk of which comes from the income tax — about $4.8 billion. The figure doesn’t include pension savings or other savings. And the revenue doesn’t fill the entire deficit, at nearly $7.2 billion if the state does not enact a budget.

Of the Senate plan, Rauner said an agreement — on both sides — “is now a question of political will.”

“I firmly believe that we can come to agreement on these issues,” Rauner said. “And I pledge to you that I will sign that good deal for taxpayers the minute it arrives at my desk.”

There was a brief pause in the budget address about 34 minutes in, as Rauner’s teleprompter broke down. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan handed the governor her paper copy of his speech as he waited for the machine to resume working.

“Speaker said it was the Russians,” Rauner said to laughter.

Rauner’s budget proposal factors in “projected” savings that would need legislative approval, including changes to pension costs, and health insurance for state employees. Harry outlined $3 billion in potential spending cuts, including $1.3 billion in pension savings and $520 million in savings by changing health insurance options for state employees. The state would no longer pay pensions for “extremely high salaries,” or ones over $180,000.

“The budget is balanced. He presented a balanced budget today,’ Harry, the state’s budget director, said. “Available online is a 570-page budget proposal that provides many things as far as prioritizing spending, doing spending reductions … proposing structural changes to growth the economy and to add jobs. The budget is balanced.”

Other funding proposed is a 10 percent increase, or $36 million more for MAP grants for an additional 12,000 students. Universities and community colleges would be funded at 90 percent — or a cut – of what they received from fiscal year 2015.

Although there is no money to pay down the state’s massive backlog, Harry said “the governor would be open to financing” to get the backlog down.

The chief architects of the ‘Grand Bargain’ offered differing reactions to the governor’s speech – Senate President John J. Cullerton opting not to mention Rauner or his address.

“Right now the Senate is working on this year’s budget because there isn’t one,” the North Side Democrat said. “We need to restore stability and sanity to Illinois’ finances. That begins with a budget for the here and now. That’s what the Senate is trying to do.”

But Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno applauded Rauner and said she shared in his sense of urgency to pass the plan: “We can now consider the Governor’s advice in our discussions as we move forward. We want what the Governor wants – a bipartisan compromise that is a good deal for the taxpayers.”

Speaker Mike Madigan, Rauner’s chief Democratic nemesis, issued a statement blasting the governor.

“‘Staying the course’, as the Governor wishes, means billions of dollars in new debt, and lost services for tens of thousands of Illinois’ most vulnerable children, seniors and families,” the Southwest Side Democrat said. “Unlike the governor’s ‘stay the course’ plan, Democrats are proposing a new way forward. We want to work cooperatively with the governor to pass a full-year balanced budget and improve our economy, but we don’t accept that the only way to create jobs is by cutting wages and stripping away protections for workers in an effort to increase profits for businesses — all at the expense of middle-class families.”

Madigan said House Democrats will “lift up” the middle class and provide good jobs for working families while also minding businesses and the economy.

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