Mark Fitton, Illinois News Network Feb. 10, 2016, 7:09am


SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday evening closed out a tour of speeches to civic groups around the state with an often-repeated message for Democrats:

Work with him on what he considers reforms or pass a tax hike and wear the blame for it.

Eight months into fiscal year 2016 without a state budget, the Republican from Winnetka continued to put the onus for the budget impasse on Democrats in general and House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago in particular.

After a speech to the Springfield and Illinois chambers of commerce Tuesday, the governor told reporters, "I've said to the speaker, 'I will work on tax reform and new revenue, but we need to do reforms.' So far, he's refused."

Asked if his position was so weak that he must simply wait for the speaker to act, the governor said: "I can't unilaterally raise taxes, and I won't unilaterally raise taxes. And I can't pass a budget; only the Legislature can pass a budget. "

Rauner said Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, "know that only doing a tax hike isn't either the right answer or politically popular. They just want to try to force me to do that, and I'm not going to that, so we're going to stay the course."

Democratic leaders, including Sen. President John Cullerton of Chicago, have recently said Rauner's wrong, that without some agreement with the GOP, the votes simply aren't there for a tax increase.

They've also rejected the core of the Rauner "Turnaround Agenda," with a Madigan spokesman recently calling it "neither structural nor reform" but "another whack at middle class families so the 1 Percenters can get further ahead.”

Rauner has said while he's never said one thing must or must not be included in a grand bargain with Democrats, he wants:

-- Term limits for elected state officials, including legislators, and independent legislative redistricting.

-- A property tax freeze coupled with local governments being given the option to cut costs by removing some items from collective bargaining, the prevailing wage and contracting rules.

-- Significant changes to the state's civil lawsuit and workers compensation systems.

Rauner on Tuesday argued that simply using his veto and other executive powers to control out-of-whack spending or to fashion a one-year patch would not be addressing Illinois' fundamental flaws in its political and business environments. Those flaws, he says, are costing the state population, jobs and the ability to compete.

"Higher taxes or fewer services ... I say that's not the choice," the governor said Tuesday. "Let's do faster economic growth and less government waste and bureaucracy. We'll free up billions to put into our schools and human services. That that needs to be the conversation."

"If we were just an average-growing state -- average-growing over the last 15 to 17 years -- we wouldn't have a budget deficit, we wouldn't have unpaid bills, we wouldn't have had the need for a tax in 2011 and we'd have money for our schools. We need to grow and we need to shrink the cost of government."

Not everyone agrees with the idea that Illinois can right itself solely by downsizing government and promoting growth, especially in the short term.

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said that while both are legitimate goals, even eliminating the state's entire payroll wouldn't let Illinois balance its budget and pay its debt.

Democrats and Republicans alike, he said, are probably going to have to accept some bitter pills -- likely reduced spending on social services for Democrats and some form of tax increase for Republicans -- if there is to be a budget agreement anytime soon.

Without an overall budget for fiscal 2016, the state is still making payments on roughly 90 percent of the bills it covered in the previous year by paying for costs mandated in continuing appropriations, by court decrees, in the primary education budget that did pass and for its debt service.

And that spending does not include funds for higher education or most social services.

Illinois also is sitting on about $6.9 billion in unpaid bills, and that amount will grow to $10 billion to $12 billion by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2016 if action isn't taken, according to state Comptroller Leslie Munger, R-Lincolnshire.

Additionally, Illinois unfunded pension obligations are estimated at $111 billion to $113 billion.

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