Gov. Bruce Rauner ruled out a state bailout of Chicago in a tough-love address to the City Council Wednesday as daily negotiations continued behind-the-scenes with his friend and former business associate, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It was the first time in anyone’s memory that a sitting governor had addressed the City Council. But it was more of a public show to burnish Rauner’s reformer image.
Chicago aldermen have no power to affect the frenzied deal-making that’s going on in Springfield in the final weeks of a spring session that’s likely to go into overtime.
And they have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors as Emanuel, Rauner and the Democratic legislative leaders hammer out what the mayor hopes will be a “mega, mega deal” that may well include the city-owned casino that has eluded Chicago mayors for a generation.
But by entering what he joked was a “lion’s den” filled with Democrats, Rauner demonstrated that, while he is anti-union, he is not anti-Chicago. He’s willing to help Chicago help itself, provided he gets at least some of his “turnaround agenda.”
“For Chicago to get what it wants, Illinois must get what it needs,” the governor said.
“We don’t have the money to simply bail out Chicago. That’s not an option.”
The political tango on display at Wednesday’s meeting was underscored by what happened minutes before the governor arrived at City Hall.
Aldermen approved a resolution they had debated at a bash-Rauner-fest last week denouncing the governor’s plan to create right-to-work zones. They called it an attempt to “pull the rug out” from under an already struggling middle class and a “race to the bottom.”
During his 10 minute address, Rauner made no mention of right-to-work zones. Nor did he mention the rest of a turnaround agenda that includes reforming workers’ compensation, freezing local property taxes, minimizing the formidable influence of labor unions and scrapping prevailing wages.
But that’s what he was talking about during a speech greeted with a polite, but frosty round of applause.
“I was born in Chicago in the shadows of Wrigley Field. I love this city. I want this to be the greatest city in the world for every family and every neighborhood,” the governor said.
“But the city, like the state, is at a tipping point. We can’t continue governing from crisis to crisis bandaging over problems while we slowly slide down the scale of great cities. That’s not the future I want.”
Rauner then joked about the hostility. He noted that a friend had asked him if he felt a bit like Daniel entering the lion’s den.
“I said, ‘No. Daniel had much better odds,’” the governor joked.
To underscore the point, Rauner asked for a show of hands from Republicans in the standing-room-only City Council chambers. Three or four hands went up — and only from the gallery.
Afterward, Rauner said he was fine with the resolution denouncing right-to-work zones in Chicago. It’s up to local communities to decide what’s right for them, he said.
Despite all of the unresolved issues, Rauner said he’s pushing “aggressively” to get his turnaround agenda and budget passed by May 31.
As Rauner walked down a flight of stairs to the lobby of City Hall, hundreds of union members chanted nearby, holding posters that read “Save the middle class.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez accused Rauner of taking a meat ax to social services and “enforcing a crisis” to enable a political agenda.
“The campaign is over. You’ve been governor for 114 days. Stop running down our state. Stop trying to make it sound so bad. Chicago is the best city in America. We work hard. We are diverse. Gov. Rauner should be our biggest cheerleader. He should inspire us by moving us forward without attacking the most vulnerable among us. Illinois won’t get better by attacking our hardest working of citizens,” Ramirez said.
Emanuel desperately needs Rauner’s help to solve the combined, $300 million pension crisis at the city and public schools.
The mayor wants a publicly owned Chicago casino, with all of the revenue used to shore up police and fire pensions.
He wants to resurrect his 2011 proposal to broaden the sales tax to an array of services not now covered, an idea that Rauner has also championed.
And he wants the governor and Democratic-controlled General Assembly to lift the hammer hanging over Chicago taxpayers — a state-mandated, $550 million payment due in December to shore up police and fire pensions — and give taxpayers more time to “ramp up” to that balloon payment.
To erase a $1.14 billion shortfall and $9.5 billion pension crisis at Chicago Public Schools, Emanuel has appealed to Rauner to end the pension double-standard that forces Chicago taxpayers to pay twice, for retired city teachers and for the pensions of retired teachers outside the city.
On Wednesday, Rauner made it clear that would be a heavy lift — not only for him, but also for the Republicans in the Illinois General Assembly and for the people they represent.
“There is talk of so-called `double-taxation’ of Chicago residents for schools. But outside Chicago, folks see Chicago gettin’ its own special deal, receiving over half-a-billion dollars every year in net extra funding compared to the rest of the state’s school districts,” Rauner said.
“These different points of view are a tremendous challenge for us to all overcome together. Chicago’s agenda does not and cannot stand alone from the agenda we need to bring back Illinois. To achieve what we must requires sacrifice and compromise from all of us.”
Emanuel stood his ground. The mayor said it was inconsistent for the governor to want to tie Chicago’s hands by freezing local property taxes and, at the same time, continue taxing Chicagoans twice for teacher pensions.
Asked where there is room to compromise with his friend, Emanuel specifically mentioned workers’ compensation “done the right way.” He noted that Chicago taxpayers spend $100 million a year on worker’s comp.
“Four years ago or around that time, I fought for worker’s comp reform. I believe in workers’ comp reform. I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” the mayor said.
“I know it’s important on his agenda. If we do it in the right way, I’ll work together to get that done because, as an employer, the largest in the state of Illinois, we have an interest in that type of reform. But doing it the wrong way doesn’t mean it helps.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduces Gov. Bruce Rauner to speak to the Chicago City Council. | Brian Jackson/For The SunTimes
Gov. Bruce Rauner walks down the hallway after speaking to the Chicago City Council. | Brian Jackson/For The SunTimes