SPRINGFIELD — Declaring this the “last best chance to get our house in order” Gov. Bruce Rauner laid out an ambitious agenda Wednesday that called for improving the state’s business climate while reducing the power of organized labor.
Rauner used the opportunity of his first State of the State address to present his agenda for fixing the state’s most pressing problems such as high property taxes and a wage and labor environment that he says are pushing jobs and people out of Illinois.
“Over the past dozen years, 275,000 more people decided to leave Illinois than chose to come here,” the governor said. “And over that same time period, the states around us have been kicking our tails.”
Among the high points of the governor’s agenda:
Although he did not cite numbers, Rauner promised to boost education funding, including for the state’s most disadvantaged school districts and for early childhood education.
“From cradle to career, our children’s education needs to be our top priority,” Rauner said.
The governor also reiterated his support for special education, as well as vocational and technical training.
He said Illinois has to do better getting resources into classrooms.
“Our education bureaucracy stands between state resources and the classroom,” Rauner said. “We must find ways to reduce it.”
He called for ending the cap on the number of public charter schools that can be created.
Rauner isn’t backing away from organized labor.
The governor said he wants to streamline requirements for state projects such as the prevailing wage and project labor agreements.
He said the state employee pay scale should be based on achievement rather than longevity. He also called for allowing local communities to create right-to-work zones that would prohibit workers from being forced to join unions.
Rauner also wants to require unions that contract with the state to increase minority participation in their apprenticeship programs. He said about 80 percent of people in Illinois apprenticeship programs are white even though whites make up less than 63 percent of the state’s population.
And Rauner continued to press that unions that do business with the state should not be able to fund the campaigns of the very people with whom they bargain.
The governor proposed an increase in the minimum wage to $10, but phased in over the course of 7 years. Democrats in the General Assembly groaned when they heard that, and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, smiled and said Democrats would be moving quicker.
Rauner said the state will hire more prison guards to improve safety for guards and inmates.
The governor also stressed increased investment in prison alternatives, such as the state’s Adult Redeploy program, which he said has diverted more than 1,900 offenders into community-based programming.
The governor was critical of Illinois’ reliance on property taxes and focused largely on improving the ability of state and local governments to cut costs through reduced spending on labor and improved bidding processes.
Other than mentioning a need for a broader tax base, the governor stayed away from discussing new revenue sources.
Rauner again mentioned Illinois’ over-abundance on units of local government (nearly 7,000) and called for reductions.
He endorsed term limits, calling for the a constitutional amendment ballot question in 2016, saying the decision belongs to voters.
Rauner said excessive burdens from workers compensation, unemployment insurance and liability costs all need attention, as Illinois costs are out of line when compared to other states.
The governor also called for prohibiting trial lawyer donations to elected judges and moving toward merit-based judicial reform.
The governor’s fellow Republicans praised the address, saying Rauner was the first governor in more than a decade to accurately portray the condition of the state.
“It’s the first time in my five-year tenure as a state representative I’ve heard a true State of the State speech. By that I mean it’s the first time I’ve heard someone lay out the problems we have, specifically, how its affecting us, specifically, and what the governor intends to do about it,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon.
“I also found thought it was very interesting that it was not a bi-partisan speech” intended for popularity. “Rather, it was one where the governor said here’s what we need do for this great state and the citizens of this great state. I’ve not heard that in the past.”
Others in the GOP concurred.
“It was big and bold and it was hopeful,” said state Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove. “I thought it was realistic given where we are. The governor’s offered a transformative agenda and I like it.”
Rank-and-file Democrats largely praised the addition of more prison guards and increasing education spending, but some were also critical.
“Again, I think it’s so much more of a campaign speech and were not getting to the real meat of it,” said state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora.
Others did not like Rauner promoting charter schools.
"I'm an opponent of charter schools. I just think it takes away from the public schools. We should all be working together to make our public school system stronger and better for everybody," said state Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan.
But state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, countered that charter schools offer inner-city youngsters trapped in failing schools opportunities to thrive.
State Rep. Jay Hoffmann, D-Collinsville, said he hopes Democrats and Rauner can work together, but he was disheartened by the governor’s thoughts on organized labor.
“I don’t think you should be attacking teachers, I don’t think you should attacking correctional officers, I don’t think you should be attacking state police and the firemen who are out there on the front lines doing the work,” Hoffman said.
Michael Carrigan, president Illinois AFL-CIO, was blunt.
“I don't think he had a firm grasp on reality” Carrigan said. “He was talking about how we all need to work together for a better tomorrow but then launches into some pretty vicious attacks on organized labor, who is the middle class."
For Rauner’s part, he said, “Next to being a parent, teaching is the most important job in the world. We must support our many good teachers. That means putting more resources directly into classrooms, reforming the education bureaucracy and rolling back costly mandates.”
State Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said Rauner and the Legislature “need to bring all groups together, including the unions, to make sure we are working together. That's far more productive than to point fingers or cast blame."
Madigan struck a cooperative and even affable stance after the speech, saying he didn’t see the governor’s address as divisive. He pledged to work with Rauner.
Speaking to reporters, Madigan refused to rule anything out, saying, “I don’t want to prejudice any of the governor’s ideas.”
The speaker did return repeatedly to a couple of themes, namely a need for reasonable negotiation and Rauner’s remembering it takes 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate to make ideas into legislation.
Madigan also said he did not think spending cuts alone would be enough to lift Illinois from the financial hole it is in.
“There are a lot of people in the House who would like to vote for an extension of the income tax increase,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”
House GOP Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, praised Rauner for being up-front.
He “was very bold making very direct statements, but the type of statements the people of Illinois want to hear,” Durkin said.
Said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, “The bottom line here, and I think the governor made this point, is that Illinois is not competitive.
“So no matter what we have in place right now, as long as we’re not competitive, the problem isn’t solved and nothing can be taken off the table.”
Lesley Nickus, Scott Reeder and Greg Bishop of the Illinois News Network contributed to this story. Illinois News Network is affiliated with the Illinois Policy Institute.