Facing a tough Republican primary, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will deliver the annual State of the State speech on Wednesday to outline his vision for the final year of his freshman term.
Rauner hasn’t formally addressed state lawmakers since last winter, when he was locked in a historic, two-year-long budget impasse that pitted the governor against Democrats and some members of his own party.
The speech also comes as Rauner is in a competitive primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, who lambasted Rauner Monday before the Chicago Tribune editorial board as someone who hasn’t achieved anything during his first three years in office other than “a progressive social agenda.”
Here are four topics to listen for in the governor’s speech Wednesday, which you can hear live on WBEZ 91.5 FM at noon.
Turning around the ‘turnaround agenda’
When incumbent Illinois governors deliver their annual State of the State addresses, they’re usually little more than glorified campaign commercials. Expect Rauner to follow that playbook.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, of Bloomington, predicts the governor once again will push for term limits and property tax relief. And he expects him to tout last year’s school-funding overhaul, which Brady characterized as “one of the best reform packages I’ve seen any state put in place.”
“He’s got a lot of good things to run on, but there are challenges he wants to keep fighting for in the next term,” Brady said.
Rauner completely whiffed on enacting things like term limits, a property tax freeze, and other major components of the 2014 campaign platform he dubbed his Turnaround Agenda. Despite Democrats putting that treatise in a legislative deep freeze the past three years, Brady expects to hear about it again on Wednesday.
“You can’t give up the fight for what needs to be done to turn this state around, and that’s why I applaud Governor Rauner,” Brady said. “He’s willing to put his own time and resources into rebuilding this state, and he’s not going to give up on the agenda.”
Education victory lap
After decades of trying, state lawmakers last summer passed a bill to recalculate how the state distributes funding to schools in order to be more equitable to low-income school districts. At first, Rauner partially vetoed it, but later signed a largely similar version into law. Since then, he has listed the measure as a major achievement of his time in office and has taken credit for its passage.
But Democrats have repeatedly pointed out that Rauner initially vetoed the bill because he said it bailed out Chicago Public Schools — only to sign a later version that gave CPS even more money.
“[Illinois residents] are going to see through the notion that he’s now claiming credit for a bill that he basically vetoed,” said Steve Brown, a spokesman for Rauner’s chief political rival, House Speaker Michael Madigan, of Chicago.
Rauner has praised the bill because it creates a new program that diverts state tax revenue to special funds that would help families pay for private school tuition or help send their children to public schools outside their home districts. Opponents have derided the program as a backdoor form of school vouchers.
The majority of lawmakers Rauner will be giving his speech to Wednesday are actively opposing his campaign. After Rauner signed a bill last year that allows Medicaid to cover abortions in Illinois, even some of his fellow Republicans swore off supporting his re-election.
State Rep. Allen Skillicorn, R-East Dundee, said Tuesday that he’s opposing Rauner’s re-election effort, and instead is backing Ives in the March GOP primary. But he will still support some of the governor’s proposals to change Illinois state government.
“I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat, if I’m supporting his primary challenger or not, if the governor is talking about real substantial reforms that will be good for Illinois taxpayers, I will support it no matter what,” Skillicorn said.
Meanwhile, Madigan’s spokesman said he’s hopeful the lawmakers who voted for a full state budget will remain aligned this year to prevent another prolonged impasse.
“You cross your fingers and hope that can happen,” Steve Brown said. “If you watch the rhetoric from the governor where he talks continually about just more bombs away on Speaker Madigan, that may be wishful thinking. Time will tell.”
Beyond another budget impasse as a possible partisan flashpoint, listen to whether Rauner moves to build on an executive order he issued in January that bars legislator-lawyers (like Madigan) from arguing property tax appeals.
Show me the money
Don’t expect Rauner to get into the weeds on his budget plan for the next fiscal year (that speech comes Feb. 14). But listen for some signals that he understands the depth of Illinois’ financial and economic struggles and has plans for change.
As a candidate in 2014, Rauner touted his credentials as a successful private equity investor and said that experience would enable him to lift Illinois from its economic doldrums. But his time presiding over Illinois has been anything but an era of sound financial health.
The state’s bond rating is one notch above junk status, and last November, S&P dinged Illinois for its “persistently dysfunctional budget politics.” Illinois’ pension systems remain among the worst-funded in the country. And unpaid bills have nearly tripled during Rauner’s watch.
Listen for whether Rauner pushes hard to repeal the recently passed state income tax hike or offers any olive branches to lawmakers who will soon begin work on their first full-year state budget since the damaging impasse.