Gov. Rauner’s State of State vow: ‘Time we do what the people of Illinois want’

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Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Jan. 31, 2018, at the Capitol in Springfield. | Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP

SPRINGFIELD — In his last State of the State address in a rocky first term, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner laid down some optimism on Wednesday, while highlighting some of the state’s major problems — as the clock ticks ahead of the March primary.

In a nearly 30-minute speech, Rauner praised the state, vowed transformation and spoke of an executive order to strengthen sexual harassment reporting in state government, while yet again pushing to pass legislation to bring property tax relief to the state.

The speech is of utmost significance in Rauner’s final year of his first term, giving him a chance to appear gubernatorial and above the political fray — even as he essentially makes the case for another four more years in office.

There was nary a mention of the budget impasse that nearly stretched into its third year last year — besides the governor talking of vetoing the income tax hike the helped to end the historic impasse. Or of President Donald Trump and how the Republican president’s policies may affect the state.

No mention of conservative outrage over the governor’s support for an abortion bill or a summer filled with tumultuous staff shake-ups.

Instead, the Republican governor spoke of bipartisanship, the strengths of the state and the future.

“The state of our state today is one of readiness: readiness born of unprecedented frustration with our political culture, along with the firm belief that we have tremendous, but as-yet unrealized, economic potential,” Rauner said. “The place to start is with a joint effort to restore public trust.”

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And he vowed to submit a “balanced budget proposal next month,” a declaration that had Democrats on their feet applauding — many in mockery of the governor — with Republicans soon joining in a more sincere ovation.

“And I hope this year you’ll pass it instead of ignoring it,” the governor quickly said to Democrats in an unscripted moment.

In a preview to his Feb. 14 budget address, Rauner said he’ll “offer a path to reduced spending, and it will show the way to surpluses going forward so we can reduce taxes and start to push back against the assault on middle class bank accounts.”

Extolling key issues that affect Illinois voters, the governor said it’s time to help the people of the state.

“On this point I think we can also agree. It is time we do what the people of Illinois want. Halt the advance of taxes,” Rauner said. “Stop spending money we don’t have. Get our pensions under control. And give power back to the people.”

He saved his campaign wishes until the end, with two key issues aimed at his chief political nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan: term limits and the governor’s hope to prevent lawmakers from acting as lawyers in property tax appeals cases. The speaker has for long been a partner in a law firm that deals with real estate tax appeals.

“Eighty percent of the state’s voters want term limits. The other 20 percent, it seems, are seated in this chamber and in elected Illinois courts,” Rauner said.

Of the state’s property tax system, he said “no one in Illinois is happy.”

“Ordinary people — the ones without clout or connections or money to pay high-powered lawyers — are victims of a system rigged against them,” Rauner said.

Touting his accomplishments, which Democrats were quick to criticize, Rauner spoke of a controversial school funding formula that passed last year: “We achieved historic parity in per-pupil funding for charter schools, and we created Invest in Kids, the state’s first-ever tuition tax credit scholarship program.”

While Rauner’s campaign cited the bill as his top accomplishment last year, the formula was fought hard for years by Democratic and Republican legislators. And the formula is not yet in place amidst some last minute scrambling to repair technical portions of a trailer bill.

The governor brought two residents of the Quincy veterans’ home, which came under fire after several deadly Legionnaires’ outbreaks. That issue has continued to put the governor in the hot seat over how the state handled a 2016 outbreak. Rauner last month spent a week at the home, saying he wanted to get to know the residents and to learn best practices to ensure they were as safe as possible.

“The CDC says it is impossible to eliminate the bacteria. But we will fight against it as hard as our veterans fought for us,” Rauner said.

Rauner’s speech began with a lengthy listing of state accomplishments. “Our history is rich,” he said. He spoke of collaboration in the state and Chicago’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. But noted it must be done on a bipartisan level.

“This is not a prize one wins alone. It takes a collaborative effort, a forget-about-the-politics-and-roll-up-our-sleeves kind of approach. It requires a laser-like focus on economic development and job creation and a bipartisan dedication to restore public trust,” Rauner said to applause from Republicans.

Madigan issued a scathing statement post-speech, saying “Rauner chooses to blame others for the challenges facing our state on his watch instead of being the leader he was elected to be.”

“For the good of our state, maybe it’s better the governor continue sitting on the sidelines and pretend he is ‘not in charge,’” Madigan said. “That way, serious leaders can continue working to move our state forward, while the governor can continue to ignore his utterly dismal record without accomplishments, and avoid the real discussion about the damage he has inflicted on our state.

“While he remains on the sidelines, those of us in the Legislature will continue working together in a bipartisan way to ensure our state moves forward.”

Madigan’s GOP counterpart, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, issued a statement on the address that endorsed Rauner’s message but made no mention of Rauner or the speech itself.

“We must work together in a true, bipartisan manner to solve our problems — meaningful property tax relief, a balanced budget, pension reform and the reduction of the tax burden upon all Illinoisans,” Durkin said. “Together, we can find bipartisan compromises and solutions to put Illinois on the right fiscal path and create economic opportunities in all corners of the state.”

And Illinois Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady in a statement said Rauner “reached out to both sides of the political divide in an effort to move Illinois in the right direction.”

State Rep. Jeanne Ives, who is challenging Rauner in the March primary, said it will be difficult for the governor to achieve bipartisanship when he has divided the Republican party.

“The idea that he wants to work in a bipartisan way. Well, sure, of course he wants to impose the Democrats’ social agenda to the detriment of all the Republicans and what we believe. So, the idea that he’s going to be bipartisan now after just dividing our entire Republican party over things like sanctuary state, and taxpayer funding of abortion, I think is just a little bit, it’s just words. It’s just words,” Ives said.

The governor’s speech is just six weeks away from the March primary, in which he faces the Wheaton Republican. He also faces six Democratic gubernatorial challengers, many of whom are eager to heap criticisms on the incumbent governor.

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