By Sara Burnett & Sophia Tareen
CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is hardening his anti-tax stance as he readies a re-election bid following a major legislative defeat, replacing key staff with leaders of a conservative group that blasted the Republican just a few weeks ago for even considering a tax hike to end a years-long budget impasse.
Rauner’s new chief of staff and a top policy aide, among others, come from the Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank that has advocated for deep cuts to the Medicaid program for the poor and mass layoffs of state workers to fix the state’s finances without new taxes. The overhaul also has included Rauner’s communications director and other communications staff and longtime loyalists, and more changes are expected this week.
Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman says appointing former organization President Kristina Rasmussen his chief of staff is an “unmistakable signal” that Rauner intends to fulfill a promise to make Illinois “prosperous and free.”
“With the governor’s decision to add Kristina to his team, Illinois taxpayers and families have an effective and proven champion on their side,” Tillman said.
Democrats looking to unseat the first-term governor in 2018 say the moves should alarm people in Illinois, where lawmakers’ inability to agree on a state budget led to deep cuts to social services and universities and caused the state to rack up almost $15 billion in unpaid bills.
“This is the Donald Trump playbook of playing to the worst extremes of your base when you have nothing left to lose,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, who this week is visiting human service agencies affected by the loss of state funding as a part of a “Damage is Done” Tour.
Rauner’s office declined to comment Wednesday.
The shift is notable because for Republicans to win statewide in Illinois — a place that typically favors Democrats for those offices — candidates tend to run as moderates. Rauner himself said for years he would support a tax increase to help balance the budget, provided it was accompanied by pro-business changes such as lower workers’ compensation costs.
But some in the GOP say Rauner is shoring up support from a political base he’ll need in an off-year election, when turnout is lower and getting reliable GOP voters to the polls will be critical. It’s also to appeal to voters angry that their taxes are going up.
The changes in the governor’s office follow a tumultuous two-and-a-half-year state budget standoff between Rauner and majority Democrats. Credit rating agencies warned Illinois could become the first U.S. state with a “junk” rating.
Democrats who control the Legislature approved a budget deal last week with help from just over a dozen GOP legislators. It included a $5 billion income tax increase and none of the changes Rauner had insisted on, such as a property tax freeze.
Rauner vetoed the plan, but lawmakers last week voted to override him, with enough Republicans sticking with their “yes” votes to do so despite heavy criticism from groups such as the Illinois Policy Institute.
The group says its mission is to push “economic liberty and free market principles.” It does not delve into social issues.
Its targets are clear: Democrats, namely longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Republicans who support tax increases. The group regularly caricatures Madigan in sinister-looking cartoons and financed a documentary about his tenure, pinning Illinois’ financial problems on the Chicago Democrat.
Emotions over the tax hike got so intense earlier this month that the organization asked followers on its Facebook page to be respectful.
“Threats, foul language, etc. do nothing to advance our cause,” it read.
The organization has a media branch that acquired a radio news service in 2015, and a legal arm that supports limited government power. Its donors are not public.
Rauner, a wealthy former private equity investor, has long supported the organization. Before he was governor, his family foundation gave the group more than $500,000.
Earlier this year the Institute proposed a state budget that relied on no increased taxes. Instead, it called for cutting some 600,000 people from the Medicaid rolls and stripping the rights of local public-worker unions to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.
In 2015, the institute’s vice president of communications proposed a fix for Illinois’ massively underfunded pension system by laying off all state government employees, then hiring them back as new employees so they would fall under a less-generous pension plan. Critics called the plan unconstitutional.