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Rauner's first 100 days: The politics of negotiating a budget

During his first 100 days in office as Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner has proposed big financial cuts to Illinois universities, social services and some health care programs. We wanted to better understand the Republican politicians’ playbook when it comes to negotiations as Statehouse leaders turn their attention on spending more than $30 billion next year.

Senate Democrats have held hearings about how those cuts could affect, say, disabled citizens who rely on state aid for services. So, picture a hearing room that’s packed full of people who have physical handicaps, parents who rely on daycare and the people who run agencies helping them.

Related: The fight between Rauner and unions

Democrats might’ve seen the cuts as the state government being heartless by reducing services to the people in the room. But Republican State Senator Matt Murphy saw it as part of negotiations and took the hearing to mean something else entirely. His comments caused an uneasy shift in the tone among the crowd.

“To be perfectly clear, so everybody in this room understands why this problem hasn’t been solved yet, (that) is because the Senate Democratic caucus wants to leverage this issue and push this debt into next year and they’re using you as political pawns in the process,” Murphy said to people at the hearing. “I mean, somebody’s got to speak the truth in this room.”

Maybe you see the Democrats who are in the majority as protectors of government services. Or, maybe you agree that they are cynically using people for their own political priorities, and not spending taxpayer money effectively. Or maybe you think it’s a combination of the two.

Related: The Rauner Play-by-play

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich used to make the case for his budget priorities by often talking about “no growth” budgets, or cuts to programs for children. And Republicans often opposed Democratic budgets saying spending was out of control.

The point is, budget negotiations may be seen as a game of chess, but they have very real consequences.

This year, there’s a new entity in the negotiating room, and some of those tried-and-true tactics are shifting.

“They’re still feeling each other out,” said former House Republican leader Tom Cross. “I guess you’d say they’ve probably gotten to know each other. Now they’re venturing a new road and trying to balance a budget with limited resources.”

As the top House Republican, he was in the room to negotiate budgets with the Democrats who previously had majority control of state government. He said there was going to be posturing and leveraging in any negotiation, but right now, people are just trying to figure out Gov. Rauner, who’s an unknown entity as a first-time office-holder.

Lee Daniels is another former House Republican leader, who also served as Speaker of the House for one term in the 1990s during a time when his own party controlled state government. He said even when negotiating a spending plan with members of his own party, there was still drama.

“We all fought like cats and dogs as we should in a democracy in the legislative process. But at the end of the day, the people that I worked with when I was there, we understood that we had to come together in the end, we had to balance the budget,” Daniels said.

Daniels also made the point that negotiations on the budget with the governor and the Democrats didn’t mean his job was done. He then had to go sell the plan to his own fellow Republicans. If they weren’t on board, he’d have to negotiate with them to get enough votes to pass the whole thing.

Charlie Wheeler, a longtime Statehouse observer and political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield said putting the necessary votes on a negotiated budget can be tricky because leaders want to remain in power. And the way they keep that power is by protecting members of their own party, who may get asked to vote for unpopular ideas. So those who won’t have serious opponents vote yes and those who typically have hard-fought elections don’t have to.

“It may sound cynical but I think it’s reality. Particularly in this day and age when we have such polarized campaigns,” Wheeler said.

But even as budget negotiations begin and the Democrats who have a majority of lawmakers in the Statehouse start to see Rauner’s priorities on paper, Rauner has a slightly different viewpoint on the budget than previous administrations.

“It ain’t that hard to balance the budget,” Rauner told a crowd recently.

The governor has said he’s not focused on negotiating the budget just yet because - as he puts it - it’s rather easy.

Instead, Rauner is first going after something he says is more difficult: something he calls making structural changes to government, or eliminating conflicts of interest.

But opponents have another name for it: Union-busting.

So how is Rauner doing on that front?

We’ll have more on that next week - as we continue to look at Governor Rauner’s first 100 days in office.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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