Grading Rauner’s first 100 days: hits, misses, a question of trust

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Gov. Bruce Rauner has tried big spending cuts as he wresltes with the state’s budget crisis. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

In his $60 million campaign to win the governor’s office, Gov. Bruce Rauner promised he would change the way Springfield works.

Few would dispute that the Republican governor is rejecting old rules, even as he trips over rookie mistakes.


He has gone on tour advocating for laws that would erode the power of labor unions in Illinois, deepening the already-wide divide between himself and unions.

After repeatedly urging the Legislature to allow a temporary Illinois income tax increase to fade away, Rauner presented a budget plan in February that included no new revenues. He recommended deep, across-the-board budget cuts.

His budget package also assumed he would successfully advance a proposed pension overhaul and save $2.2 billion.

Rauner managed to broker a deal with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton to fill a $1.6 billion budget hole Rauner inherited from last year’s budget — only to be accused of going back on his word, causing more consternation in the state Capitol.

The back-and-forth over last year’s state budget has Laurence Msall of the Civic Federation worried.

“We’ve got a month yet, and we’ve spent most of our time arguing about the 2015 budget,” Msall said. “No one is offering anything in terms of revenue.”

Rauner has pushed for changes to worker-compensation laws and struck a deal to partially privatize the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, energizing business groups.

This past week, Rauner marked his first 100 days in office. Here’s a look at the key issues he’s focused his attention on — and his hits and misses:

Spending freeze:  As one of his first acts in office, Rauner froze “non-essential” state spending. That led to the ongoing debate about just what’s essential. His office ordered the review of state grants and construction projects, as the governor urged departments to turn off the lights and turn down the heat to save funds. Meanwhile, Rauner’s new hires — and their salaries — caused a stir. That included a $30,000-a-month contract for Donna Arduin, who Rauner wants to help him steer Illinois through the state’s fiscal mess.

Hit: After a Chicago Sun-Times investigation revealed that former Gov. Pat Quinn gave a sweehheart grant to Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, Rauner’s office demanded the $10 million be returned. It was.

Miss: Right after Rauner put in place a spending freeze on non-essential items, a $100,000-a-year chief of staff was hired for his wife, Diana, even though the Illinois first lady has no official state duties.

Budget: Rauner’s budget was the centerpiece of his campaign for governor. During his election campaign, he repeatedly vowed to save Illinois by “growing our economy.” But he didn’t mention he planned to use deep cuts to close a $6 billion gap worsened by the “sunsetting” of the state’s temporary income tax increase. But Rauner’s proposal includes significant cuts to higher education, Medicaid and elsewhere. It does recommend a $300 million increase in K-12 education but also includes cuts to special education and programs for at-risk students.

Hit: Rauner presented his budget plan on time in February, surprising those who thought he would need more time and ask for an extension. The budget did not include a recommendation to fill  holes through borrowing — a practice that has contributed to the state’s dire financial straits. “He’s not talking about his options for revenues right now, he’s talking about his options for cuts,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “I give him credit for the wake-up calls, for letting voters know there’s some tough medicine ahead.”

Miss: Rauner decried budget gimmicks, but his budget assumed $2.2 billion in savings from a pension overhaul. That was despite knowing a previous pension overhaul is still tied up in litigation. (Lawmakers did not assume savings from that deal.) Aside from that, Rauner has to get past wary Democratic lawmakers a proposal to move all state workers into a less-attractive pension package.

Build trust — or lose trust: Building optimism in Springfield and elsewhere, Rauner and lawmakers negotiated a package to fill a $1.6 billion budget hole from last year’s budget. Both houses advanced the proposal, sending it to Rauner, who signed it in what appeared to be a new era of cooperation. Then came what Rauner critics have dubbed the “Good Friday Massacre,” in which the governor’s office announced during the Legislature’s spring break it was slashing services, effective immediately, for autism (on World Autism Day), epilepsy, immigration groups and HIV care, among others. State lawmakers complained they thought they had already plugged the hole, prompting Madigan to call Rauner’s budget director Tim Nuding to a hearing on the matter. Nuding apologized for the miscommunication.

Hit: Rauner managed to strike a deal with Democrats in his first 100 days as governor.

Miss: This is a big one.  The $26 million Good Friday slashing has sucked up a considerable amount of time and oxygen in the last several weeks. Democrats are still reeling from the episode and  wondering whether they can trust Rauner as they move to a budget compromise.

“That’s why it was a mistake — the way it was handled, doing it on Good Friday,” says Yepsen. “I think had the administration had gone back to leaders and said: ‘We have to do these, we have to do more cuts,’ he would have been told: ‘This is crazy, ‘I think that was bad because not only are the cuts questionable, the effects of that have delayed progress on the budget. It has bred distrust on the budget among Democrats. And he doesn’t need that.”

The larger problem is the distraction it’s caused. “Really, where the outrage hasn’t been is on [Rauner’s] budget but on the 2015 shortfall,” says the Civic Federation’s Msall. “We spent all this time talking about how $25 million in grants were cut back. I’m not saying those aren’t important constituencies. But that’s for this year. We have a $6 billion [shortfall] — if you take the rhetoric —  that there hasn’t been any discussion on.”

Anti-union campaign: Rauner’s first 100 days in office have been largely marked by a post-campaign campaign — against unions. In early February, Rauner signed an executive order ordering “fair-share” fees — taken from paychecks of state employees who don’t belong to a union but arguably benefit from union-negotiated contracts — be put into an escrow fund pending litigation. Rauner simultaneously brought in a law firm, working for free, to pursue the matter in federal court. The legal battle continues. But his move backfired when his hand-picked state comptroller raised legal issues, as did Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Rauner has toured the state trying to sell his “Turnaround Agenda.” His remarks have focused largely on bringing “right-to-work” laws to municipalities in an affront to organized labor.

“I want you. I want local voters to control the nature of collective bargaining. What should be bargained and not bargained inside your county government, your city government and your schools. I want you to decide,” Rauner said at a March appearance stop in Mundelein.

Yepsen said the anti-union campaign has done little to help Rauner.“I think that may have made unnecessary enemies here. I also understand that he believes it. I don’t think he needed to do it to get started on getting the budget in balance,” Yepsen said, suggesting that Rauner is doing it to throw red meat to conservatives. “He had Republicans who were suspicious of him, still are, he had to show his Republican bonafides.”

Hiring: Rauner has said he would not rely on patronage or inside deals. He promised to hire professionals and “superstars.” What most people didn’t see coming: how much he was willing to pay those people. The top two hires at the Illinois State Board of Education together make more than half a million dollars. He has a budget consultant making $30,000 a month and, so far, his office’s staff is making far more than Quinn’s staff did, according to an AP analysis earlier this year. Despite the pricey hires, Rauner’s budget plan centers on deep cuts to services and a pension reform plan that makes steep assumptions given ongoing legal challenges and needs legislation to move into law.

Hit: Rauner has repeatedly defended hiring practice, saying he needs good people at the top to get Illinois out of its fiscal mess.

Miss: Rauner had complained state workers made too much money, citing those who earn in the $60,000 range. He has since backed off that complaint. 

Re-energizing business: One of Rauner’s biggest backers, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, has welcomed Rauner’s “pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda.”

“This is the first governor that I can recall making workers’ comp a priority,” says Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer for the IMA. “I think he’s had limited success, I think it’s been a learning curve not only for the governor and his staff but the General Assembly and lobbyists. I think you started to see his stamp, his action to create a public-private partnership in DCEO. I think you’ll start seeing more.”

While suspending money for state programs on the one hand, the governor’s office did green-light $100 million in tax breaks for corporations in support that will not affect this year’s budget. Rauner defended the move saying Illinois has to work to reclaim its credibility with business.

“I think that you have renewed hope and optimism among the business community,” Denzler says. “They still have concerns, but they recognize they have a new captain at the helm. That gives them comfort.” 

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