SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner told voters he would shake things up.
And Wednesday, he didn’t hold back.
The rookie Republican governor used his first State of the State speech to unveil an incredibly ambitious agenda to a Democratic Legislature — where many of his ideas could be considered traditional non-starters. Senate President John Cullerton called it “divisive.” But House Speaker Michael Madigan said he’s keeping an open mind.
That’s because the next step is a negotiation with the Legislature.
“Today marks a new beginning for Illinois,” Rauner told lawmakers. “And a new partnership between the General Assembly and the governor.”
Rauner has a lot on his mind. He wants to spend new money on K-12 education. He wants to freeze property taxes for two years, and he wants to expand the sales tax. He wants term limits, local government consolidation and a ban on certain campaign contributions.
And in what some are characterizing as an escalating attack on organized labor, Rauner wants to let government workers decide whether they want to join a union. He also wants voters to control local collective-bargaining issues.
Finally, Rauner said he wants to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour — over seven years. That prompted laughter within a mostly receptive House chamber. A bill already moving through the Legislature would push it to $11 from $8.25 in four years.
“Our agenda must be about empowerment,” Rauner said. “About empowering the people of Illinois to control their futures.”
Rauner made no mention of the state’s pension crisis in his remarks, although the agenda he passed out to legislators did include his recommendations.
On the whole, Rauner gave one of his most detailed speeches yet. But Democrats still found themselves scratching their heads when it was over — wondering how the governor would find new money for the investments in education. He also wants to hire more correctional officers for the state’s prisons.
“The administration is interested in balanced budgets, they’re interested in restraining the growth of state spending,” Madigan said after the speech. “But today they’re asking for an increase in appropriations for child care and for the Department of Corrections. Not being critical, but this just explains how difficult it is to manage state government when there’s a shortage of resources.”
Unions howled over Rauner’s proposal to let voters decide whether their communities should become “employee empowerment zones” — where employees may choose whether to join a union. Rauner said those zones would create more jobs, more economic activity and more tax dollars. He called it a “win-win-win.”
Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, called it “divisive rhetoric.”
“So-called ‘right-to-work or ‘employee empowerment’ laws won’t make our state ‘competitive,’” Montgomery said in a statement. “And cutting the salaries and fundamental rights of hard-working Illinoisans isn’t ‘compassionate.’”
Noticeably absent from Rauner’s remarks was any mention of the state’s pension crisis. The governor took office last month with a $100 billion pension shortfall and a pension reform law in legal limbo. But in the “Turnaround Agenda” passed out to lawmakers, Rauner proposed moving current workers to a “Tier 2 pension plan and/or a 401(k) for their future work.” He said police and firefighters should be considered separately.
Cullerton and Madigan signaled they’re willing to negotiate over pensions. Madigan said he’s “open on any changes to the tax code” and stressed he wants to tackle the state’s budget deficit. Rauner could reveal more details on that front when he gives his budget address Feb. 18.
But first, Rauner planned to spend Thursday touring southern Illinois — and pitching his newly unveiled agenda.
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, acknowledged some of the new governor’s ideas might kick up some controversy. But she also said it’s been awhile since Illinois had a “good, two-sided discussion” — particularly when it comes to collective-bargaining agreements. She said that’s about to change.
“We will have a robust discussion about that,” Radogno said. “No question about it.”