GOP gets boost, but headaches ahead for Rauner

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Gov. Bruce Rauner’s great challenge will be to balance the State of Illinois budget without further borrowing.

It’s a new era in Springfield.

As Republicans prepare for inauguration celebrations in the state capital and as Illinois ushers in a new administration, people on both sides of the aisle are wondering which direction Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner will head.

In a campaign that shattered spending records, Rauner made lofty and bold promises, including to lower the state income tax, freeze property taxes and yet boost education funding. He was criticized throughout the campaign for offering few details on how he would accomplish all of those goals when the state is in economic shambles.

Now Rauner will have to lay out not only a plan, but an actual budget just weeks after taking office. As recently as Friday, Rauner’s transition team said it was not yet ready to make specific recommendations. Rauner has made clear from day one that sweeping changes were on the way.

But even before he steps foot in Springfield, Rauner has notched one major change under his belt.

He has energized what was viewed as an ever-weakening Republican Party in Illinois.

“Had Bruce Rauner not won, the Republican Party would have been wiped off the map,” said former Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady, who has worked closely with Rauner’s campaign. “It’s a remaking of the brand in the state of Illinois that we can actually be productive, good public stewards and actually deliver what we want.”

On top of a budget hole in the $5 billion to $6 billion range, Rauner enters office with a $100 billion pension shortfall and a pension reform law that’s in legal limbo.

“It’s no longer easy street,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a recent interview. “It’s no longer the campaign. It’s now time for the tough decisions.”

Quinn cited the closing of Tamms prison as one of his most difficult — and most unpopular decisions as governor.

In December, about one month after winning election, Rauner warned of a difficult 24 months and that he was “not going to be Mr. Popularity for a while.”

“It’s going to be very difficult,” Brady said. “He’s going to have to make a lot of tough choices, and it’s not going to be pretty.”

Still, Republicans carry a good deal of optimism that their man can bring new start.

Some Democrats, too, say they’re encouraged by Rauner’s reaching across the aisle.

“It’s always healthy to have some balance. I’m interested to see what a balanced government looks like, how it’s going to work,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, who saw some eight years in office under one-party rule.

“It’s a new day starting on Monday … we have to get things done,” Crespo said.

However, as appropriations chairman, Crespo said he has heard no clear details on where Rauner is headed when it comes to the budget.

“I’m really intrigued to see what his priorities are. Education is very important to him. … He’s talked about  agriculture and some other areas. I’m really interested to understand how he reconciles that with the current funding,” Crespo said, estimating that Rauner faces a budget hole of $5 billion to $6 billion.

Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both the Illinois House and Illinois Senate, are also eager to see Republican votes on budgets in the Illinois House, under a Gov. Rauner budget.

“Hopefully he will bring the Republicans to the table. Every single budget we’ve passed is with Democratic votes. I think there’s value there,” Crespo said. “That’s truly bipartisan, let’s share the pain together.”

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