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After A Rough Summer, Can Rauner Turn Around His Turnaround Agenda?

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is feeding some familiar lines to business leaders in China and Japan during his first overseas trade mission this week since taking office.

Speaking with WBEZ from Tokyo on Monday evening, Rauner said he reiterated his desire to freeze property taxes as he tried to lure one unnamed Japanese business to Illinois.

Rauner’s elusive property tax freeze, along with changes to workers compensation rules and term limits for state lawmakers, are a few of the surviving policies that once made up his Turnaround Agenda. For years, Rauner insisted that aspects of the pro-business, anti-union agenda be included as part of a deal to end the state’s historic budget impasse — but that didn’t happen. Earlier this year, Democratic leaders in the state legislature were able to win enough support from Republican lawmakers to end the two-year stalemate.  

After signing a bill in August to fund schools, Rauner told reporters that spurring economic growth will be his next priority by trying to cut business regulations and licenses.

So after a summer of political defeats, can Rauner resuscitate his Turnaround Agenda, either politically or legislatively, to promote a state he’s repeatedly said is “broken”?

Rauner’s summer of setbacks

It’s been a rough summer for Rauner.

After some Republicans broke from the governor in July to approve a state budget that included an income tax increase, Rauner purged his staff, replacing many of them with employees from a libertarian think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute.

Those connections to the policy institute attracted more scrutiny when the group published a controversial political cartoon that some lawmakers called racist. Rauner’s communications team, which included a number of former policy institute staffers, sent out a statement Rauner said he didn’t authorize, saying the governor could not comment on the cartoon because he is a “white male,” causing the governor to clean house once again.

And in late August, the governor ended up signing a school funding overhaul into law, despite the fact that he’d partially vetoed it earlier, and the final version included almost none of Rauner’s requested changes.

But despite those political losses, Rauner’s biggest allies in the budget fight argue he won’t be negotiating his future agenda items from a weakened position.

Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of Rauner’s, said the governor has plenty of tools in his belt to promote Illinois, like he’s doing during his current trip to Japan and China.

“What he can do is say that, ‘Hey, I’m trying to move the legislative process forward, so expect me to say more things about where we’re not doing as well as we should, but the reality is we’ve got a great workforce, we’ve got great location, we’ve got great infrastructure,’” he said.

And if anything, Maisch said, Illinois’ strong suits — such as its central location and reputation as a transportation hub — are still selling points the governor can tout to foreign markets.  

“Certainly geographic location is something the legislature can’t screw up,” Maisch said.

Is the ‘Turnaround Agenda’ done?

Maisch said efforts to pass the Turnaround Agenda will likely slow down as the focus turns to the 2018 gubernatorial election. At least nine Democrats have said they want the chance to run against Rauner.

“These issues are not going to go away,” Maisch said. “Legislators should be prepared to talk about workers’ compensation for a long time until they actually get it done.”

Much of the blame for why Rauner has made little progress in advancing his agenda can be pinned on Democrats, said Mark Denzler, another Rauner ally who is the chief operating officer for the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. Democrats have a majority in both chambers of the state legislature. They frequently said Rauner’s agenda would harm the quality of life for working families, and argue the budget impasse was causing so much harm, uncertainty and debt that the tax increase was necessary for the state to get out of the hole Rauner created.

Denzler said it’s up to Democratic legislative leaders — specifically House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — to decide where Rauner’s agenda goes from here.

“I hope that the legislative leadership, now that they’ve passed their tax increase, will look and say, ‘What can we do to really attract manufacturers and other businesses to the state of Illinois?’” Denzler said.

What will Rauner campaign on?

One challenge for Rauner’s agenda is how he frames it for voters during his bid for reelection next year. Rauner ran in 2014 as a candidate who cared less about partisanship than he did fiscal discipline. Now he will be running as a Republican in a midterm cycle with national headwinds reacting to President Donald Trump, who didn’t even receive 40 percent of the vote in Illinois during the 2016 election.

“In strictly political terms, I think his campaign apparatus is going to maximize the political value of the fact that Democrats raised taxes but didn’t change anything related to the status quo,” Maisch said.

Even though Rauner supported a temporary income tax hike, blaming Democrats for the higher taxes approved in July could be a successful strategy for Rauner, said Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party and the founder of Next Generation Strategies, a political lobbying and communications firm.

“Right now, all the Democratic candidates running for governor, all they’re talking about is, ‘We’re gonna have to have some more tax increases,’ and I think people in Illinois are sick of tax increases,” Brady said.

Rauner reported having more than $67 million in his campaign fund in July to help amplify his message. He even gave a preview of his theme for next year’s campaign, signalling a brutal fight with Democrats as he seeks to tie them to his arch opponent, Madigan, who also serves as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.

But as Rauner moves forward after a politically gruelling summer, he doesn’t sound like he’s abandoning some parts of his Turnaround Agenda. In a statement, Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for Rauner’s reelection campaign, touted the governor’s record when it comes to school funding, criminal justice and energy.

But she also made a point to say that key parts of the agenda will be at the center of his reelection campaign.

"It will be clear that the choice next November will be between a governor who will keep fighting for better schools, property tax relief, term limits and to rollback the Madigan tax hike or an opponent who will protect the status quo and keep taxes high,” Kukowski wrote.

Tony Arnold reports on state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold. 

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