By Sara Burnett
SPRINGFIELD — With crises mounting around him, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s strategy for fending off potential Democratic challengers and keeping his job in 2018 includes stressing the bright spots while blaming others for the things going horribly wrong.
As a Republican in a solidly Democratic state, the wealthy former private equity investor would have been one of the country’s most endangered GOP incumbents even under the best of circumstances. Adding to his task are a state budget impasse that has dragged on for most of his two years in office, decimating many social service agencies and creating billions more in debt, and a labor dispute that has Illinois’ largest public-employee union holding its first strike-authorization vote.
Rauner didn’t make more than a fleeting reference to the budget until the end of his annual State of the State address on Wednesday. Instead, he highlighted accomplishments such as ethics reforms, increased funding for schools and improved cybersecurity of state records and said he was “deeply optimistic” about Illinois’ future.
When he made it to the budget issue, he was quick to point the finger at his predecessors for creating a mess that includes $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and the worst credit rating of any state.
“These problems aren’t new,” Rauner said. “They’ve been building up for many years as past governors and General Assemblies — from both political parties — kicked the can down the road to avoid making tough decisions.”
Democrats pounced. One possible 2018 challenger, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, called him an “epic failure,” while the head of the Illinois Federation of Teachers wondered where Rauner, who owns nine homes, has spent the past two years.
“It’s like he’s not living in Illinois,” Dan Montgomery said.
The Democratic Governors Association, which considers Illinois a top-tier race, suggested Rauner’s State of the State could have been summed up in four words: “Getting worse every day.”
And state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who isn’t ruling out a bid, scoffed at Rauner’s attempts to shift blame to others. He noted Illinois was paying its bills within 30 days before Rauner took office; as of this week the state’s backlog of overdue bills is almost $11 billion and some vendors are waiting months to get paid.
“The only variable that’s changed … is the fact that we have a different governor and that’s Bruce Rauner,” Raoul said. “He wears the shirt for that.”
Rauner deposited $50 million of his own money into his campaign fund last month. Republicans said the money was intended to send a message to potential challengers — including deep-pocketed businessmen J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy — that taking him on would not be easy.
Rauner, a first-time politician, defeated Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014 by promising to bring big changes to a state Capitol where several previous governors had gone to prison and decades of bad budgeting had led Illinois to have the worst-funded public pensions of any state.
He pledged to make Illinois more business friendly by weakening labor unions, reducing regulatory burdens on companies and cutting the cost of workers’ compensation. And he pledged not to agree to a tax increase to help balance an out-of-whack state budget until the Democrat-controlled Legislature went along with him.
Democrats resisted, saying Rauner’s agenda would weaken the middle class and hurt Illinois’ most vulnerable residents while fattening the wallets of his business friends.
With the two sides at odds there has been no full spending plan approved. While lawmakers have approved money for K-12 schools and some spending has continued under court order, the state deficit has grown by billions of dollars and universities and social service agencies have lost funding, leading homeless shelters to close and colleges to lay off employees.
Rauner’s team says voters knew when they elected him that what he was trying to do would be difficult, and that they’ll reward his persistence.
The GOP also is counting on that voters will instead blame longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, whom they’ve repeatedly painted as the roadblock to reform.
The party operation — funded largely by Rauner — has worked to link his potential Democratic rivals to Madigan, who will soon become the nation’s longest-serving statehouse speaker in a century.
They credit that same strategy with helping Republicans pick up four Illinois House seats during the 2016 elections, including one held by a top Madigan lieutenant, Rep. John Bradley.
Rauner also will continue to press for lawmaker term limits and a more fair way of drawing political maps — two issues that are popular with voters from both parties in Illinois, and that he again stressed during Wednesday’s speech.
“Let the people decide these issues for themselves,” Rauner said. “End the power of incumbency and special interest groups, and give power back to the people of our state.”