By Kim Geiger
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, under fire from Democrats and their allies for cuts to popular social service programs, moved to lift those political pressure points Monday from a broader effort to win his pro-business, union-weakening legislative agenda.
In what Rauner's team billed as a compromise with lawmakers, the administration offered to loosen new rules that caused the state to turn away tens of thousands of low-income children from its subsidized child care program. The rookie governor also backed away from plans to reduce the number of people with disabilities who qualify for certain kinds of state assistance.
Both issues have been flashpoints in the larger Springfield stalemate that has left state government operating for more than four months without a full spending plan in place. Rauner wants Democrats to approve measures to weaken union rights in collective bargaining, limit worker rights in injury claims against employers and make Illinois' civil lawsuit system less friendly to plaintiffs. Democrats want a tax hike to prop up a state budget that's billions of dollars out of whack.
To save money during the impasse, Rauner used his executive powers to make the child care cuts, and had been working toward the cuts to disability services, which require federal approval. All along, the governor contended that the state couldn't afford to fully pay for the programs without a true budget.
That position changed Monday when the Rauner administration said it was willing to roll back child care eligibility restrictions so that more -- but not all -- of the families that have been rejected in recent months would be able to join the program. Higher copay rates that Rauner put in place in July would remain, while the administration said other restrictions could be lifted "pending further review and legislative consultation."
"This rule change was agreed to in good faith with legislators to create an environment where negotiations over reform and a balanced budget can succeed," Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in a statement.
The moves echoed similar pressure-relieving steps Rauner has taken. During his short-but-tumultuous first year in office, Rauner repeatedly has opted to approve more state spending in the face of political pain.
That's what happened in March, when the governor negotiated a deal to sweep money from special funds to fill in the out-of-balance budget that he'd inherited from his Democratic predecessor. When the likelihood of a budget impasse became obvious in June, Rauner signed the K-12 education portion of the unbalanced budget Democrats had sent him, ensuring that schools would open on time and teachers would not be laid off. And when the new financial year started without a budget, Rauner sent his lawyers to court to make sure state workers would still be paid.
Rauner's retreat on the child care cuts came as Democrats were preparing to send him a bill to restore funding to the program. Such a bill could put Rauner, the wealthiest governor in Illinois history, in the position of wielding his veto pen to deny services to the state's poorest families.
The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said she would hold off on bringing the measure to a vote until an administrative rules committee was able to put Rauner's new offer into place. That panel is set to meet Nov. 17.
But the compromise Rauner aides touted came without the backing of Speaker Michael Madigan, whose spokesman said House Democrats will push ahead with a vote on the bill when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday.
Sponsoring Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, said the governor's new rules were a "positive" but that her legislation was aimed at making sure that any future changes must be approved by lawmakers and could not be put in place through administrative rules.
"I am not going to speak badly about the new rules, it does give people more access to child care. But there is a long-term issue here and a short-term issue," Gordon-Booth said. "Providers have made it clear that they can't ever go through something like this again."
Much like the child care cuts, Rauner's plans to restrict eligibility for services for the disabled ran into a political speed bump when the legislature sent him a bill that would reverse the proposed cuts and prevent him from making them in the future.
Rauner was trying to raise the standard for people with disabilities to become eligible for certain services. It's called the Determination of Need score, and it's calculated on a number of factors, including how much help is needed with day-to-day tasks like eating, grooming, travel, housework and preparing meals. The higher the score, the greater the need. The current minimal threshold is a 29, which Rauner wanted to raise to 37. Advocates said doing that would leave 10,000 people with disabilities and 24,000 seniors without help.
On Friday, Rauner sent lawmakers a rewritten version of their bill, which abandoned his push for a higher eligibility score -- the fate of which already was uncertain because raising the score requires approval from the federal government -- but also made other changes that drew objections from advocates for the disabled and home care workers. That left Democrats to weigh whether to accept Rauner's changes or attempt to override him.
By Monday, Rauner had completely dropped his push for a higher score, writing a letter to federal officials that said he would no longer seek to raise the threshold. His communications staff also distributed a letter that conveyed the decision to Rep. Ken Dunkin, the Chicago Democrat who derailed a House attempt in September to override Rauner's veto of a union-related bill.
Dunkin said he has been in constant communication with Rauner about the child care program and services for the disabled.
"He's so sick of me calling about child care and the DON score," Dunkin said. "I guess I just wanted to really try to educate him on why it is that we need to be smart on how it is that we administer certain programs. ... I'm just happy that he listened."
Madigan presides over a 71-vote supermajority in the House, meaning he has exactly enough votes to override the governor. Without Dunkin, Madigan would need at least one Republican to break ranks with Rauner in order to successfully override.
Rauner's communications team cast the reversals as a sign of the governor's willingness to compromise and negotiate with those who are willing. Also Monday, the administration announced a deal with unions and business groups that could make workers ineligible for unemployment benefits if they do things like drink on the job, lie on an employment application or refuse to follow an employer's instructions.
"Today's news follows a number of recent announcements the administration has made regarding its efforts to make government less expensive, more effective and more efficient," the administration said in a news release announcing the unemployment insurance changes, which also touted the "bipartisan agreement to strengthen the Child Care Assistance Program."
Chicago Tribune's Monique Garcia contributed from Springfield.
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