With no budget, Rauner repeats calls for pro-business reform
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner used his State of the State address Wednesday to make another case for changes he says would make Illinois more competitive, even as he acknowledged that huge opposition from Democrats has prompted a record budget stalemate and crippled social services and other programs.
Rauner touched on many of the same agenda items he's pushed unsuccessfully for the past year: imposing term limits on lawmakers, freezing property taxes and allowing local governments to strip unions' collective bargaining rights.
He also attempted to show he's taking a more bipartisan approach to 2016, saying again that he will back Democratic Senate President John Cullerton's plan to overhaul Illinois' worst-in-the-nation pension system and referencing Cullerton's call for school funding reform in saying he wants to direct more money to classrooms.
"All of us in this chamber had a difficult year together in 2015 as we debated a budget with structural reform," Rauner said. "But it is not too late for this General Assembly to make historic progress for the people of Illinois."
But his roughly 40-minute speech made clear that the battle lines over a budget impasse about to enter its eighth month haven't changed. And Democrats - almost all of whom refrained from joining Republicans in applauding the governor - were quick to criticize.
"Until I see substantive progress, my patience with this charade of cooperation has all but dissolved," said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood.
Rauner and Democrats who control the Legislature have been unable to agree on a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Democrats want the governor to approve a tax increase to help close a roughly $5 billion deficit. Rauner says he won't sign off on a tax hike until Democrats give him some of his "structural reforms." Democrats have refused, saying those changes will hurt working families and drive down wages while helping Illinois' highest earners get richer.
"In terms of finding new revenue, I've said consistently that I'm prepared to negotiate with the governor," said Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. "But I do believe that as part of a revenue package that we ought to have increased taxes on the wealthy of Illinois."
Republicans applauded the governor's speech, saying it struck a conciliatory tone. They blamed Democrats for the budget deadlock, which began after the majority party in May passed an out-of-balance budget, which Rauner vetoed. Democrats insist the governor could've vetoed only parts of it to reduce spending instead of dismissing it entirely.
"The fact is they gotta stop playing the victim," said Republican House Leader Jim Durkin. "They put us in this position. They sent that ridiculous budget to the governor and I applaud the governor for vetoing it."
Without a budget, social service agencies have had to close and thousands of college students aren't receiving state grants to help pay for tuition.
Last week, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois announced that it would close 30 safety-net programs and lay off 750 employees because of $6 million in overdue bills from the state. The programs impacted include services for the homeless, mentally ill and seniors who need home care. Chicago State University has said that come March, it won't be able to make payroll.
The governor also touted his efforts to "transform" state government, from overhauling health and human services to reducing the state prison population by 25 percent over the next decade by focusing more on rehabilitation rather than imprisonment.
He said he will use an executive order to create a private, non-profit office to recruit businesses and jobs to Illinois, after Democrats last year shot down his plan to turn the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity into a private-public partnership.
Rauner also called for holding schools more accountable through testing and offering low-income students more "quality school choice options."
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery ripped Rauner's plan as "so-called education reforms" that won't improve teaching or student success and said the governor has failed on his top responsibility - the budget.
"His calls for bipartisanship are difficult to take seriously, especially given his identical words last year and his unwillingness or inability to lead since," Montgomery said.
Cullerton said he looks forward to working on a plan to address Illinois' $111 billion pension debt, but said there are still "many disagreements" about other pieces of Rauner's agenda.
"We've got to find ways to work together to solve problems, and we need to start now because Governor Rauner's first year in office didn't work for anyone," he said.
Rauner noted that other places, including left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, have passed similar reforms and said he stands ready to work for a deal.
"To achieve a grand compromise, we must cast partisanship and ideology aside," Rauner said. "We must break from the politics of the past and do what is right for the long term future of our state."
Associated Press writer Ashley Lisenby contributed to this report.