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Despite Not Having a Budget for 18 Months, Illinois Governor Expresses Optimism

Against the backdrop of a sharply divided and dysfunctional state government, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner delivered his midterm State of the State address Wednesday saying he and other politicians have a "moral obligation" to fix Illinois.

By Rick Pearson and Monique Garcia

Against the backdrop of a sharply divided and dysfunctional state government, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner delivered his midterm State of the State address Wednesday saying he and other politicians have a "moral obligation" to fix Illinois.

But some Democrats, the majority party in the General Assembly that has opposed much of his agenda, questioned Rauner's morality in governing a state that has languished for more than 18 months without a full budget. In the meantime, safety net social programs have eroded at a time when gun violence in Chicago is rampant.

The governor addressed the city's violence in his speech a day after the issue was thrust further into the spotlight by a tweet from President Donald Trump. It warned if the city didn't get a handle on the problem, he would "send in the Feds!"

"The violence occurring in Chicago every night is intolerable. We cannot let it continue. We've got to bring it to an end," Rauner said.

He found his address -- ostensibly as a precursor to his campaign for re-election next year -- clouded by his fight with Democrats over spending plans.

Despite the lack of a high-profile, political bumper sticker-style signature achievement while budget progress remains stymied, Rauner sought to portray an optimistic tone for the state's future.

He touted moves that included increased ethics restrictions and more computerization in state government, as well as fewer punitive actions toward nonviolent offenders and programs to reduce children's exposure to lead. He even noted savings on paper and postage costs by digitizing applications and renewals for professional licensing.

"Despite the problems and uncertainties we face, I am deeply optimistic about the future of our beloved Illinois. We have big challenges, and like many of you, I'm frustrated by the slow pace of change in Springfield. But with great challenge comes great opportunity," Rauner said.

"All of us -- Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between -- have a moral obligation to work together to bring change. We, together, can return Illinois to a place of hope, opportunity and prosperity," he said.

Democrats, however, didn't share Rauner's optimism.

State Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, a top deputy to Rauner political nemesis House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the governor "didn't say much" in his speech and "crowed about accomplishments that weren't his." Lang contended Democrats led the fight for more state funding for schools and changes in the criminal justice system.

Throughout his governorship, Rauner has pushed for pro-business, union-weakening changes in state laws as a condition for approving higher taxes likely needed to balance the state budget. Madigan and Democrats who control the legislature and are backed by unions and civil attorneys have opposed Rauner's agenda.

Madigan contended Rauner was pursuing an agenda that would reward "big corporations" at the expense of middle-class families. Madigan vowed a "thorough vetting process" of proposals to create jobs and boost wages, though he offered no specifics about that process.

Rauner, as he has often done in the past, called on lawmakers to send to voters proposed state constitutional amendments to limit politicians' terms and move to take much of the politics out of drawing legislative boundaries. Democratic lawmakers have rebuffed his calls.

And he said the state had made progress on three goals he set for his administration: improving ethics and efficiency, investing in education and making Illinois more competitive.

In speaking of Chicago's violence, Rauner made no mention of Trump. But he said in an interview earlier in the day on WGN 720-AM that he had not spoken to the president about the issue. The governor, however, said he had ruled out mobilizing the Illinois National Guard.

In his speech, the governor said he and the Illinois State Police "stand ready to do more" to assist the Chicago Police Department. State police patrol city expressways, which also have seen a surge in gun-related activity.

Rauner said there was "no single solution" to Chicago's gun violence and said a mix of policies "with a joint commitment between the city, the county, the state and the federal government" was required.

"Law enforcement plays a critical role in violence reduction -- but in the end, it's a treatment, not a cure," he said.

"Addressing the roots of this plague will take much more: to restore hope where hope has been lost, to build a long-term future of quality education and good jobs for communities that need it most. Tearing down the barriers to good jobs and economic opportunity. Getting rid of blight and incentivizing redevelopment. Making sure both the state and Chicago Public Schools treat low-income kids the same as high-income kids. Giving parents more choices and support to give their kids a world-class education. Putting vocational training back into our high schools so young people can see a clear path to a career rather than falling victim to the gang recruiters," he said.

Democrats countered that it was Rauner's refusal to negotiate a budget separate from his political agenda that's led to widespread cuts in child care, higher education and human service programs that has helped feed the city's violence.

"I thought overall it was just an incredibly tone-deaf speech. It's tough to hear the governor cry crocodile tears when I would argue he has blood on his hands with all the anti-violence programs he's cut since he was here," said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago.

"Cuts to mental health, cuts to Medicaid, look at the savage cuts to higher education, which leads to more kids at home without the prospect of a job or future, then maybe turning to drugs and crime," he said.

But House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, a former assistant Cook County prosecutor, said the city needs to have "a greater, strong law enforcement presence in certain areas, strategic areas."

"There's been a lot of piling on police officers throughout the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. We need to stop. They need the ability to do their work," Durkin said.

Rauner's speech came as an effort by Democratic Senate President John Cullerton and Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno to ambitiously advance a blueprint for ending the state's budget stalemate stalled the day before.

The complex package, including tax increases and a two-year property tax freeze, as well as workers' compensation changes aimed at helping businesses and a new plan to alter state worker pensions, met with heavy opposition from an alliance of business and unions.

Republican Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, a top assistant to Radogno, said GOP senators don't believe a two-year property-tax freeze is enough to offset other tax hikes and want business groups to support the package they've opposed so far.

The governor went off his prepared script to encourage senators to continue working.

"Thank you for working so hard to try to come together on a bipartisan basis to find a compromise to get a truly balanced budget with changes to the system to help job creators and protect taxpayers," he said.

"We all know this is very, very difficult. There's a lot of arrows. Please don't give up. Please keep working. Please keep trying. The people of Illinois need you to succeed. Thank you," Rauner said.

Chicago Tribune's Haley BeMiller contributed.

(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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