By John O’Connor & Sarah Zimmerman
SPRINGFIELD — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner urged bipartisanship Wednesday to confront Illinois’ economic crisis, at times drawing mock applause from Democratic legislators who blame him for exacerbating the mess by proposing tax cuts they say the state can’t afford.
Rauner used his fourth State of the State speech to call for an end to the rancor that has defined his first term, yet the political undertones were obvious. The former venture capitalist faces a tough fight in November to keep the job leading the heavily Democratic state, even if he fends off a GOP primary challenge in March.
“The state of our state today is one of readiness,” Rauner said. “Readiness born of unprecedented frustration with our political culture, along with the firm belief that we have tremendous, but as-yet unrealized, economic potential.”
The Republican’s term has been marked by a budget battle with a budget stalemate that lasted two years, the longest any state has gone without an annual spending plan since at least the Great Depression. Rauner did not get the pro-business changes he wanted, but Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan picked up enough House Republicans to override Rauner’s veto of an income-tax increase last summer to fuel an end to the impasse. Illinois still has billions of dollars in overdue bills and the nation’s worst credit rating.
“For all of us who have listened to him for three years, we’re waiting for him to show some action,” said Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican who is challenging Rauner in the primary. “But I don’t think it helps that he’s called legislators in the past corrupt, he’s called Mike Madigan a ‘crook,’ and now he wants to strike a bipartisan tone.”
In encouraging bipartisanship, Rauner pointed out Democrats and Republicans worked together to make Chicago’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters and could do so again for future projects.
“This is not a prize one wins alone. It takes a collaborative effort, a forget-about-the-politics-and-roll-up-our-sleeves kind of approach,” Rauner said. “It requires a laser-like focus on economic development and job creation and a bipartisan dedication to restore public trust.”
In calling for a balanced budget, he declared “the people of Illinois are taxed out.” One of his leading challengers responded that Rauner was the wrong messenger.
“He’s never introduced a balanced budget in the three years that he’s been governor and he suggests now he’s going to and he wants bipartisanship?” said J.B. Pritzker, the Chicago businessman who is running for governor as a Democrat. “This is a failed governor trying to make up for three lost years.”
Rauner maintains he has introduced balanced budgets. But in 2015, it depended on pension-program changes that never occurred, and last year, a balanced bottom line was contingent on a Senate compromise that never materialized.
He also called Wednesday for the state to “curb our spending and work together to give people the capital they need to build and grow.” He earlier said he would roll back the income tax hike over several years but hasn’t explained how he’d make up the shortfall in revenue as the state remains billions in debt.
The speech had the support from Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady of Bloomington.
“Gov. Rauner reached out to both sides of the political divide in an effort to move Illinois in the right direction,” Brady said. “By working in a bipartisan manner, we need to pass a truly balanced budget, as well as provide meaningful property tax relief, both of which will help grow our economy and create jobs.”
Rauner also promised a crackdown on sexual harassment before an audience overwhelmingly clad in black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement, capitalizing on the issue as one “where we agree.”