Rauner trying to broker mega-deal in Illinois Legislature

SPRINGFIELD - Seizing on Illinois' budget crisis as a political opportunity, Republican businessman-turned-governor Bruce Rauner is trying to broker a master deal to advance his pro-business priorities through the Legislature in exchange for new revenue to save programs near and dear to the Democrats.

Democratic leaders who control the General Assembly say they're willing to negotiate, and talks with Republicans could begin in the next week. But they caution that some of Rauner's proposals are non-starters.

Rauner has been heavily promoting structural changes that he says will help Illinois be more competitive and move beyond a lengthy history of financial mismanagement. They include overhauling workers' compensation and unemployment, freezing property taxes, replacing Illinois' pension system and creating "right to work zones" where union membership would be voluntary.

He says the roughly $6 billion deficit in next year's budget - which Democrats want to close at least partially through a tax increase - creates the "leverage" he needs to get some of those changes.

"Crisis creates opportunity for change, and we have a crisis. ... We've got to take advantage of that," Rauner told attendees at an Illinois Chamber of Commerce event. "A lot people are saying 'Bruce, just balance the budget and worry about other stuff later. We'll talk to you later about reform.' No, no, no. ... If we do only that, they'll never talk about reform. It'll never happen."

Rauner campaigned on his record as a successful businessman who could turn Illinois around just as he did hundreds of companies. But his efforts to mimic GOP governors in states like Indiana and Wisconsin have run up against a Legislature where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers.

Democrats insist any budget deal must include both cuts in spending and new revenue, saying slashing spending alone will hurt working people, the disabled and others who rely on the state for services such as cancer screening and mental health care.

"You've got to look at income and you've got to look at expenses," said Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton.

Rauner and legislative leaders have discussed creating working groups to try to negotiate areas of compromise behind closed doors, an approach that Republicans say signifies a new way of doing things under the first divided government in Illinois in more than a decade.

Rauner has left a door open to new revenue. During last year's campaign, he proposed a sales tax on some services, and he wouldn't rule out raising Illinois' income tax - which dropped from 5 percent to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1 - provided it's down to 3 percent within four years.

"The governor has indicated that perhaps he would consider revenue, but there's a pretty tall order that's on the table," House GOP Leader Jim Durkin said. "The governor wants a lot."

Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno believes there's potential for a multifaceted deal and that both parties recognize the need to compromise. She also said the discussions should include a review of Illinois' tax structure.

"I would say we're in such desperate straits that nothing can be off the table for anybody," she said.

But Phelon said the Senate will not consider Rauner's proposal to create right to work zones, which unions strongly oppose and she says wouldn't make Illinois more competitive. She said Senate Democrats also have differences of opinion with Rauner on what changes are needed to programs like workers' compensation.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, said it was too early to say what the speaker might be willing to support, but that Madigan agreed his caucus would participate in the working groups.

The attempt to reach a grand bargain is playing out as both sides try to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Rauner has been pitching his plan on a campaign-style tour of Illinois. The multimillionaire also has created a new political action committee, Turnaround Illinois, to support legislators who back his agenda and oppose lawmakers who don't.

Democrats have focused on telling the stories of people and organizations already hurt by cuts in the current state budget or who would lose funding in Rauner's proposed 2016 budget, which doesn't include any tax increases.

Senate Democrats have held hearings on the effect of the cuts across Illinois. On Friday, Madigan announced that a new budget oversight panel will begin meeting Tuesday to review some of the cuts Rauner made to state grant programs.

"While I believe that a budget solution should include a balance of spending cuts and additional revenue, as a state it's also our duty to protect our most vulnerable citizens, including children with autism, persons with developmental disabilities and lower-income women in need of breast cancer screenings," Madigan said.

Rauner, meanwhile, is continuing the hard sell.

"I'm a salesman," he said. "I'm also an arm twister, so we're going to do the best we can."

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, left, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, talk before Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his budget address to the General Assembly in Springfield. Associated Press/Feb. 18, 2015
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