Three years ago when Gov. Bruce Rauner gave his first State of the State address, every Democrat who commented afterward took pains to say something positive about the governor’s remarks, even House Speaker Mike Madigan who called it a “good beginning.”
They did so despite the fact that Rauner’s speech came accompanied by a handout containing his full-throated Turnaround Agenda and all its anti-union proposals.
It was a strategically cautious response by the Legislature’s majority party to a newly-elected governor who had shown the backing of a majority of Illinois voters.
On Wednesday, the Turnaround Agenda long since having receded into the background, those same Democrats dispensed with any such pretense.
After Rauner used what they hope will be his last State of the State to call for a bipartisan effort to restore public trust and fix the state’s finances, they unloaded on the wounded incumbent, no longer worried about how it will play with the voters.
To the extent Democrats and Republicans are able to work together in Springfield to get something accomplished this year, Democrats indicated, it will be despite Rauner and his often confrontational style, not because of him.
As in 2015, it was Madigan setting the tone, suggesting in a written statement released immediately following Rauner’s speech that: “For the good of our state, maybe it’s better the governor continue sitting on the sidelines and pretend he is ‘not in charge.’ ”
“That way,” Madigan continued, “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.”
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After surviving three years of Rauner’s confrontational tactics, Democrats are not going to suddenly join hands with him in an election year when the possibility of ousting him is within reach.
Whether that’s smart politics or just plays into Rauner’s campaign portrayal of himself as the only person who can clean up the “corruption” in Illinois government will be borne out at the ballot box, starting with the March 20 primary election.
The Democrats’ play is emboldened by the fact that in addition to the moderate Republicans who abandoned Rauner on budget and school funding legislation last year, the governor now has his party’s conservative wing in open revolt in support of the candidacy of state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton.
Democratic candidates for governor jumped at the opportunity to offer what some were calling the “real” State of the State, all of them working off some variation of a theme that Illinois is worse off than before Rauner’s 2014 election.
The most telling moment of the speech came when Rauner said, “I will submit a balanced budget proposal next month.”
Democrats, who contend with good evidence that Rauner has never proposed a balanced budget, reacted with mock applause, leading Rauner to amend his statement by adding the word “again.”
As the applause built, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a Rauner nemesis, led Democrats in a loud standing ovation, also intended mockingly.
“Ha, ha,” said Rauner, a smile on his face while looking darts at the Democratic side of the aisle, then ad-libbed: “And I hope this year you guys will pass it instead of ignoring it.”
Indeed, the more anticipated Rauner speech is his annual budget address, scheduled for Feb. 14.
At that time, Rauner will need to reveal how he proposes to balance this year’s budget and pay down the state’s backlog of bills at the same time he wants to roll back the income tax increase approved last year by the Legislature.
Rauner said his budget will “offer a path to reduced spending.” Democrats will be anxious to see if it offers specific actual spending cut—and to what services.
Rauner’s budget speech coincides with Valentine’s Day.
Nobody is expected to blow him any kisses after that one either.