By Sophia Tareen & Sara Burnett
CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner lost an unprecedented battle with the “Springfield insiders” he once campaigned to dethrone when lawmakers approved a budget deal and $5 billion tax hike over his objections, and without the pro-business reforms the Republican promised for years.
Now the question is whether the outcome of the more than two-year budget impasse will help or hurt the wealthy former businessman when he asks voters for a second term in 2018.
Rauner, who last year deposited $50 million into his political fund, already was facing a particularly difficult re-election in a place where voters typically elect Democrats to statewide office. A growing list of Democratic contenders with access to equally massive campaign accounts have lined up to oppose him, and Democrats and other liberal groups nationally are spending money and calling him one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbent GOP governors.
“It’s hard to really point to a lot of strong accomplishments,” said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “Is it enough to say, ‘I worked hard for you. I couldn’t get it done, but keep me and I’ll keep working at it?’ Or does he look like an ineffectual bumbler that’s driven the state into the toilet?”
But some experts say the scenario that played out when lawmakers overrode his vetoes of the tax hike and spending plan could be a political gift for Rauner, who gets to take advantage of about $5 billion in new state revenue without having supported it.
Next week he’s expected to hold campaign-style events where he’ll portray himself as the defender of taxpayers and point blame for the stalemate and new tax hike at his chief political rival, longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who leads the Democratic Party of Illinois. Rauner also will have millions to do the same on television, and to link his rival to Madigan in campaign ads.
“Mike Madigan is going to own the tax increase and it’s very difficult to win elections when your main accomplishment is you raised income taxes,” said Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
Rauner said throughout the impasse that he wouldn’t support an income tax increase to help balance the budget unless he got some changes to improve Illinois’ business climate and give other relief to taxpayers, such as a property tax freeze and reduced workers’ compensation insurance costs. Democrats resisted, saying his agenda items would hurt working people and that a property tax freeze would hurt school districts that rely on that revenue.
With the two sides unable to agree on a budget, the state continued to spend billions more than it was taking in, due to court orders and state law mandating some payments.
Illinois racked up about $15 billion in unpaid bills, college students left the state because of cuts to higher education and social service agencies were forced to cut programs and staff or close entirely. Illinois also saw its credit rating downgraded multiple times, and ratings agencies warned as the state entered its third fiscal year on July 1 without a budget that Illinois could be the first U.S. state to be lowered to “junk” status.
The mounting pressure prompted 15 Republicans in the House and one in the Senate to break ranks and vote with Democrats for a $36 billion spending plan that relies on a permanent income tax increase. Rauner vetoed the plan, but enough Republicans remained “yes” votes to help Democrats complete an override.
Among the more than half a dozen Democrats vying to challenger Rauner are billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker, one of the country’s wealthiest men, and Chris Kennedy, the nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy.
On Friday, Pritzker’s campaign began automated phone calls to voters, which accuse Rauner of holding the state hostage for 736 days, causing “devastation” for Illinois families.
“It’s time Bruce Rauner was held accountable for the damage he’s inflicted on the people of Illinois,” says a woman in Pritzker’s recorded call who identifies herself as part of his campaign.
Phillip Beverly, a political science professor at Chicago State University, said many voters will do just that.
“As the chief executive, he is that sort of single face of the state,” Beverly said. “He’s going to be viewed as the decision maker for the state and he was unwilling to compromise on his turnaround agenda.”