SPRINGFIELD – Even as Illinois remains without a budget, Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday used his second State of the State address to double down on his call for the Democrat-controlled Legislature to go along with his pro-business, anti-union agenda. His speech left Democrats with few positive things to say about the rookie governor, but Republican lawmakers said they support his call for a spending plan that’s paired with structural reforms, including changes to collective bargaining.
Speaking very little on the state’s budget gridlock, which has left social service agencies reeling, Rauner said businesses and jobs are leaving Illinois left and right because of the state’s costly workers’ comp system, liabilities, labor regulations and high property taxes.
“All I’m asking is a return to balance in this state ... [because] right now, we don’t have competitive balance and jobs are leaving,” Rauner said in his speech.
Democrat lawmakers were quick to criticize Rauner, who went as far as to say recent contract demands from the state’s largest public employees union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, are “out of touch with reality.”
Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, agreed with Rauner’s call to “install common sense into [Illinois] union contracts,” remove red tape from the state procurement process and hold universities more accountable.
Rauner also promised big changes to the way Illinois funds K-12 education and how the state will work to target the underlying cause behind criminals repeatedly finding themselves in the state’s correctional system.
State Rep. John Anthony, R-Plainfield, issued a statement saying he was glad to hear Rauner emphasize a “shared commitment” to education.
“Together we are going to continue on the path of eliminating wasteful bureaucracy, putting more money into classrooms and holding schools accountable for results,” Anthony said.
Rauner pledged to work with Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, to increase state support for education by focusing additional resources on low-income and rural schools without taking money away from other districts.
“Early on when we saw changes to the formula used to determine how schools would be paid there were too many winners and losers,” Morris Community High School Superintendent Pat Halloran said. “It sounds like they may be willing to take our opinion and come up with a more palatable approach.”
District 54 Interim Superintendent Al Gegenheimer said he is in support of funding that will not take from other school districts, although he’s interested in seeing what the method will be.
Halloran said he also was happy to see Rauner’s support for more partnerships between high schools, community colleges and local employers.
“Career and technical education is back in style now that we are leaving the No Child Left Behind Act behind,” he said. “Locally we are working with employers and Joliet Junior College to focus on the whole child. We’re very excited for this goal because it fits in place with what we are currently doing.”
Gegenheimer said he did not listen to the speech, but from what he heard it’s hard to find anything to disagree with. He did say he was concerned with how the state will achieve the goals, noting educators have heard promises before.
“I hope we stop the parade of unfunded mandates and start funding the mandates already in place,” Gegenheimer said. “I’m just glad to see education is a priority.
There are several areas in which Democrats and Republicans agree – including the need to better fund schools, reduce recidivism rates and enact pension reform, said state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood.
“If he would get off the unions, there could be more movement on some of his agenda items,” Walsh Jr. said.
But Rauner hardly backed down Wednesday, saying “taxpayers are losing from the hidden costs of work rules buried in previous [state employee] contracts,” such as AFSCME’s ability to file grievances against volunteer efforts or to manipulate overtime policies to boost pay.
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, agreed, saying that while she values state workers, the state “cannot afford” to continue down a path where contracts include generous compensation packages and pay raises.