Governing by executive order — Rauner flexing political muscles or overreaching?

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In Illinois, this was the week of executive orders.

Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn signed a slew on his way out — some that drew immediate fire, including his attempt to make his successor reveal more of his tax returns.

Incoming Gov. Bruce Rauner worked to set a tone that it was a new day in the state’s capital, ordering through a series of orders a freeze on state spending, transparency and accountability on hires and generally more control over how money is spent.

Then on Friday, Rauner signed perhaps the mother of executive orders – one that reversed seven 11th-hour ones Quinn had recently put into place — including the order mandating full release of tax returns.

“It is clear that too many of Pat Quinn’s actions during his final weeks in office were in an effort to settle political scores and not wholly aimed at serving the public’s interest,” said governor spokesman Lance Trover in a statement.

By using his executive authority, Rauner is making good on a campaign pledge that he would exercise whatever powers are available to him.

But one political watchdog group was looking carefully at Rauner’s orders, including one that aimed to create transparency and additional oversight on hires within the governor’s office and the agencies it oversees.

In one executive order, Rauner aimed to curb a “revolving door” on lobbying, putting restrictions on government workers who want to move on to lobbying jobs.

Rauner signed the edict flanked by two state lawmakers – both former prosecutors.

Rauner said he was taking aim at a patronage scandal that began under Rod Blagojevich within the Illinois Department of Transportation but accelerated under Quinn. A federal hiring monitor is now overseeing hires.

David Melton, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said a portion of the order was written too broadly when it states: “No state agency shall enter into any employment contract with any person without prior review and approval by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.”

The way it’s laid out, could be a double-edged sword, Melton said.

“You have to let the governor know when you’re hiring somebody. That’s why it’s an overdrawn order, I think,” Melton said. But it also means that the buck will stop with Rauner. In the IDOT patronage case, Quinn said he had no knowledge of what was happening with the hires. This edict, Melton argued, would point directly to the governor’s office if there’s ever a question.

“It’s their way of trying to prevent [cronyism] in the future. But anytime you get into hiring, you get into a lot of ancillary issues,” he said. “Improper considerations [can] come into play.”

Rauner has seemed to welcome the scrutiny, also announcing last week that political hires by his office will be posted online.

Rauner’s office said the governor was not attempting to work around the General Assembly and that his hands remained outstretched to lawmakers of both parties.

“Governor Rauner has made clear that he intends to work in a bipartisan fashion with the Legislature in order to turn our state around. However, in some instances, where he can effect immediate change like slowing the revolving door from government to lobbying, he is going to act unilaterally,” Trover said.

Still, lawmakers will be watching.

“It’s a governor’s prerogative, and it’s not unusual for new governors who are trying quickly establish a new tone and mode of operation in Springfield,” said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. “We will be reviewing the governor’s executive orders to ensure that they are compliant with the parameters laid out in the constitution.”

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