Rauner gropes for silver lining as state flounders amid gridlock
“How’s that working out for you?” That’s what Bruce Rauner, the 2014 Republican candidate, often asked in questioning why voters kept returning Democrats to run Springfield. Now he’s governor of a very troubled state and the same question may loom large over his reelection bid next year.
Bruce Rauner ran for governor pledging to “shake up Springfield,” but with more than two years of leadership under his belt, Illinois government is more shaky than shaken up and the rookie governor appears moving to downsize expectations ahead of his reelection bid next year.
With Springfield mired in an epic budget gridlock, the mantra from Rauner has turned minimalist. “On things that we can control, I would give us an A,” Rauner declared in a recent public television interview.
Unstated, of course, is that Rauner has found that there is an awful lot about steering Illinois government he has been unable to control as his pro-business, anti-union agenda hit a wall of defiance from Democrats who run the legislature. And that has left him with a less than blazing record of accomplishment to campaign on.
To Kent Redfield, a veteran political scientist at University of Illinois Springfield, Rauner’s downscaled revisionism smacks of a cop-out.
The Better Government Association is a 94-year-old full-service, nonpartisan Chicago-based watchdog organization that shines a light on government, holds public officials accountable and engages citizens through investigative journalism, public policy advocacy, open records lawsuits and civic engagement.
“It’s like the baseball coach with the losing record,” Redfield said. “‘I’m making really good decisions but people keep getting hurt and my relievers keep throwing gopher balls in the bottom of the ninth.”
Rauner has devoted much of his time in office to vilifying House Speaker Michael Madigan, leader of the legislative Democrats, and signs of a détente were scarce heading into the final hours of the current legislative session. It, like previous sessions in the Rauner era, has been mired in distrust and inaction even as the state’s fiscal condition slides from bad to worse.
But as much as Rauner seeks to make Madigan’s intransigence a central issue in 2018, reelection campaigns typically become referendums on incumbents. And if that political maxim holds true, Rauner will be staring down unavoidable questions:
How is Illinois better off than when he took office in 2015, and what solid accomplishments can he point to?
Marquee agenda items Rauner now claims as wins include introduction of a “balanced budget” plan, providing record school funding and pushing for a fairer method to distribute it, and the enactment of criminal justice reforms. Under close examination, spinning those as positives appears problematic.
For three years running, Rauner has proposed budgets he has claimed were balanced but were anything but. The school funding boast is technically accurate but ignores context: higher general aid levels he achieved were a benchmark originally set for 2010, and the state fiscal crisis under his watch has led to major delays in paying other obligations to school districts.
And while criminal justice reforms can certainly be counted as a rare bipartisan accomplishment under Rauner, implementation of some has been complicated by the precarious nature of the state’s finances.
Recently, Rauner aides have begun distributing a 10-page document outlining what they see as the greatest hits of his administration. It is top-heavy with fiscal claims that may seem trivial or dubious when laid against the profound budget abyss into which Illinois has fallen.
Exhibit A is the state’s backlog of unpaid bills. When Rauner took office, the backlog stood at an already large $6.4 billion, but has since more than doubled to nearly $14.4 billion, according to Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza (see chart p.14). The delays in paying bills also will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in late payment interest charges.
Meanwhile, with no budget in place for nearly two years, the state’s higher education and human services systems have crumbled and its credit rating has seen six downgrades.
The financial carnage goes even deeper, according to a recent report from the Chicago-based Civic Federation.
“During the budget impasse, state agencies have received only partial funding for their operations, including maintenance costs and day-to-day expenses such as utilities,” the nonpartisan fiscal watchdog said.
“Continued funding shortages are also affecting state workers and their families who need medical care. Because of record delays in payments of state health insurance claims, some doctors and hospitals are demanding payment up front or are declining to accept new state-insured patients.”
In the face of such downbeat developments, Rauner this spring began appearing in statewide TV ads that had the look, sound and feel of very early reelection spots, though he insisted they were designed to sell voters not on himself but only his budget for the coming fiscal year.
“Our balanced budget plan freezes property taxes, caps spending, creates jobs and puts term limits on politicians,” Rauner declared in one of the spots, which were bankrolled by an affiliate of the Republican Governor’s Association.
That claim – repeated numerous times in legislative committee hearings by Rauner’s budget director – has been challenged by a variety of sources, both political and nonpartisan.
The main target of criticism has been how Rauner purports to erase an enormous mismatch between anticipated spending and revenues with something akin to a wish and a prayer. A line item in his latest budget declares merely that a $4.6 billion gap between available revenues and costs will be closed by “working together on a ‘grand bargain.’”
What’s more, while Democratic and Republican leaders in the state Senate have been working for months to achieve just such a deal, Rauner has largely paid lip service to support the concept while working behind the scenes to thwart it – as evidenced by the unwillingness of his GOP allies to vote for bargain components they had once warmed to when push came to shove.
The Democratic-controlled Senate recently passed the package of revenue hikes and cost cuts, but without any Republican votes. Rauner complained it failed to comply with his demand to add a permanent property tax freeze to the mix.
Rauner’s balanced-budget claim also rests on other less than concrete assumptions.
It anticipates $240 million in revenue from the proposed sale of the state’s main office building in Chicago, the deteriorating James R. Thompson Center, even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has raised a big caution flag that could delay or even scuttle any deal.
The governor’s budget also assumes $771 million in savings from a new labor contract with the largest state employee union, AFSCME, even though the labor group has refused Rauner’s terms and is fighting them in a lawsuit which may not be resolved any time soon.
In its budget analysis, the Civic Federation notes that this is hardly the first time Rauner has plugged a budget hole with anticipated savings he may not achieve. “Despite the difficulty in reaching agreement with AFSCME, each of the governor’s budgets has incorporated projected health insurance savings based on a new contract,” the report says.
School funding is another area where Rauner says he merits a big pat on the back. The website for his 2018 campaign touts record funding for elementary and secondary schools statewide, a claim also often mentioned by the governor and top aides.
In the strictest sense, there is no arguing with that. The state spent $6.7 billion on elementary and secondary education in the fiscal year that was ongoing when Rauner assumed office and $7 billion the next year. Appropriations for the current year hit $7.5 billion.
The bare numbers, however, tell an incomplete story. Because of the budget crisis, school districts across Illinois are complaining that the state is way behind in delivering money it owes to underwrite a variety of critical services, leaving them worse off, despite pledges of increased funding.
“To date, the state of Illinois owes us over $7 million,” said Jill Griffin, superintendent of Bethalto Community Unit School District 8 in Madison County. “This year alone, the state of Illinois has sent no funding to support our special education students, they’ve sent no funding for regular bus transportation, no funding for special education transportation and limited funding for early childhood education. We are presently facing a loss of another $1.7 million just this year alone. Funding specified for our most vulnerable children.”
Griffin’s was one of 17 downstate school districts that filed a lawsuit in April accusing Rauner and the state of violating the Illinois Constitution’s requirement that all students receive a “high quality” public education. Because Illinois school districts are forced to rely mostly on local property taxes and not state aid to run schools, the quality of education in school districts in low-income areas without ample property tax wealth often suffers, the suit alleged.
Rauner has joined a chorus of political leaders from both parties urging reform of school funding to ease such disparities. Indeed, high on the governor’s list of claimed accomplishments is the creation of a “a bipartisan commission to revamp Illinois’ school funding formula.”
That’s about as far as he’s taken it, however. His commission in February released a report stocked with ideas for change, but Rauner’s administration has played no discernibly active role in seeking to turn those recommendations into law.
Though Rauner’s relationship with the Democrat-controlled legislature has been tenuous, criminal justice reform was one point of accord.
Rauner came into office pledging to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025, and several criminal justice reform bills he has signed have earned him accolades from Democratic lawmakers. These include bills to encourage non-prison sentences when appropriate and to break down barriers that often prevent ex-inmates from getting jobs.
Those reforms were among many recommendations in reports filed by Rauner’s Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, which Rauner created by executive order soon after taking office.
“I think his commitment is notable for its specificity,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, which monitors prisons and criminal justice practices. “Specifying a 25 percent reduction in 10 years takes real commitment.”
But even that has been has been dimmed by the budget crisis.
Vollen-Katz notes that as community colleges have struggled under the lack of higher education funding, some have pulled out of contracts to provide education in correctional facilities.
Likewise, as the state became a deadbeat creditor, some human service providers that worked in the criminal justice system had to reduce or eliminate services. In one such scenario, Bruce Carter, director of the Wells Center, a drug treatment facility in Jacksonville, wrote in a 2016 op-ed that his organization had to discontinue treatment services for four drug courts that closed due to the budget crisis.
“Drug courts provide substance abuse treatment and local accountability instead of incarceration,” Carter wrote. “Traditional use of conviction and incarceration approaches reported a recidivism rate of 45 percent while drug courts reported a recidivism rate of between five to 28 percent. The savings to the state and local communities are substantial.”
A year after that op-ed appeared, the center closed its doors after 50 years, due to financial hardship brought on by the budget crisis.
Countdown to 2018
As Rauner warms up his “things I can control” message in the earliest stage of his reelection effort, there’s one Rauner-controlled factor conspicuously absent from his list.
“One of the things about the governor and the executive branch is it’s not like politics isn’t part of their job,” says David Merriman, a public finance expert and co-director of the Fiscal Futures Project at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs. “One thing they can control is the tenor of the discussion.”
For most of Rauner’s time in office, the tenor of that discussion with legislative opponents has ranged from icy to hostile. Rauner and Madigan have sometimes gone months without speaking, shadowboxing and posturing over which one is being unreasonable even as state finances deteriorate without a budget and critical services suffer.
As Rauner’s reelection effort takes shape, his dominant campaign message asks voters to cast the state’s dysfunction not as a failure in consensus-building on his part but as the product of the obstinate Madigan and the party he leads.
That strategy might be a hard sell to voters, especially if the downward spiral of the budget crisis drags on into 2018. But it also, by default, might be Rauner’s best defense against close scrutiny of his answers to those nagging voter questions:
How is the state better off today and what have you accomplished?
Matt Dietrich is a Springfield-based freelance journalist specializing in state government and politics. His news career includes more than two decades at the State Journal-Register and reporting jobs at newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin. Most recently, he was founding editor of Reboot Illinois.