Illinois Democrats Seething as Rauner Slams Leaders by Name

Bruce Rauner, governor of Illinois, center, greets an attendee on the floor of the House Chamber at the State Capitol building, after delivering a budget address in Springfield, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner took office five months ago, announcing that Illinois’s deficits, unpaid bills, corruption and sagging credit -- its business as usual -- “stops now.”

The declaration didn’t make it so, nor did a steady drumbeat of news releases and stern warnings.

The equity-capital veteran’s blunt approach and public criticism of Democratic legislative leaders contributed to a budget impasse that will require an extended session in coming weeks. The standoff conjures a possible credit downgrade as well as a disruption of services.

“The insiders in Springfield who make their money from the government are at war with the people of the state,” Rauner said Sunday after Democrats rejected his proposals on business regulations and a tax freeze. Instead, they sent him a 2016 spending plan with a $3 billion hole.

Rauner, 59, beat Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn by four percentage points, or 142,000 votes, becoming the first Republican to win the governor’s office in this Democratic state since 1998. He arrived with more than three decades of business experience and after a campaign built on the message that he’s not one of the gang.

Rauner was an outlier in a state long led by battle-tested officials who served long apprenticeships in politics. While he vowed to “shake up” Springfield, his election so far has produced a replay of the budget impasse former Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, faced last year.

“Yes, it’s going to be a long summer, a difficult summer,” said Pat Brady, former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. “All of this was anticipated.”

Another Blagojevich?

The budgetary deja vu has tested the effectiveness of his approach. On Sunday, Rauner said Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has led that chamber every year except two since 1983, is the reason why Illinois has been “driven into the ditch.”

The governor’s press office sent a flurry of e-mails to reporters in the session’s final days, drawing attention to news stories or editorials praising Rauner or criticizing Democrats. One of five sent May 29 said Madigan and his party “are only interested in raising taxes.”

Madigan, in a Sunday interview on WGN-AM radio, said Rauner’s negotiating tactics draw “a clear resemblance” to those of former Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich, though the speaker didn’t specify in what way. Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 of corruption charges and is serving a 14-year sentence.

In the weeks ahead, Madigan and Rauner must negotiate next year’s budget, which begins July 1, as well as other measures the governor wants to get through the legislature in the remaining three-and-a-half years.

Rauner moved Tuesday to cut the budget by $400 million by suspending business tax credits and ending a planned highway project, among other decisions. The governor’s office said in a release that the steps were needed because Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton “refuse to act responsibly and reform state government,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said.

Brady dismissed the ad hominem attacks as the quotidian stuff of Illinois politics.

“They’re all big boys,” Brady said. “I don’t think anybody takes it seriously. Besides, they have no choice but to come to an agreement.”

Deal-cutting often has defined Illinois government, with Democratic lawmakers working with Republican governors George Ryan, Jim Edgar and James Thompson. That tradition, Rauner argues, has plunged the state into financial chaos, with the nation’s lowest credit rating and $111 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Rauner’s wealth also sets him apart from his predecessors. He earned $61 million in 2013, according to tax returns, and he has contributed money from his own political fund to Republican legislators to promote his agenda and keep members in line.

Democrats expect the next round in this fight to be an advertising campaign from the governor’s office, aimed at lawmakers he says are blocking his agenda.

Nonstop Campaign

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said Rauner “continues to run campaigns, rather than the state that elected him.”

Next year’s budget has a projected deficit of $6.2 billion. Rauner is sticking to his insistence on spending cuts and regulatory changes. And the Democrats, accustomed to working with a governor from their own party for more than a decade, will insist on some tax increases.

Up to now, Rauner’s approach has changed the style and not the substance of Illinois politics. That may change soon.

“He’s going to make the operation of state government quite different,” said Kent Redfield, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. “It’s just a question of how, and who blinks first.”

The risks, he said, are high.

“If you take over Ace Widget Company and it crashes, there are other places you can go to buy widgets,” Redfield said. “If you crash the state of Illinois, there aren’t any other options.”

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