DECATUR -- Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner struck a more bipartisan tone in Decatur on Friday, two weeks before he is set to introduce a budget proposal to lawmakers.
In an interview with the Herald & Review newspaper, sister publication of the JG-TC, Rauner did not reference his Democratic political rival, House Speaker Michael Madigan, whom he has frequently blamed for the state's fiscal woes. Instead, the first-term governor focused on a message of hope that lawmakers could come together, despite the overtones of a divisive election year.
"Hopefully this year we can use this inspiration of the (state's) bicentennial, that's my hope" to enact a balanced budget this year, he said.
Democratic candidates including billionaire J.B. Pritzker, wealthy businessman Chris Kennedy and state Sen. Daniel Biss are seeking their party's nomination in the primary election March 20. Rauner also faces a GOP primary challenge from conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
Rauner on Friday visited Crossing Healthcare clinic in Decatur, which was awarded $3 million from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to match a grant from the state. The state funding had been delayed in 2015 after Rauner froze all state capital grants during his first months in office amid ongoing budget struggles.
"Let's put the rancor aside, let's focus on a balanced budget. Let's focus on changes so we can grow, be more competitive. My message to the people of Illinois is, we need to change -- to be as compassionate as want to be ... we need to be competitive as we need to be," Rauner said.
The visit came the same week of Rauner's State of the State address, in which he asked lawmakers to call for bipartisanship and finding common ground. In his first three years in Springfield, Rauner spent most of his time pitched in battle with the Democratic majority, blocking any deals on a state budget that did not include pro-business reforms to worker's compensation insurance, public pensions, and other non-related items like lawmaker term limits, and redistricting.
Rauner's political dam broke when a handful of Republicans voted with Democrats to override the governor's veto of a budget deal that included an income tax increase from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent, and a 5 percent across-the-board cut to state agencies.
Now with a budget in place until the end of June, the governor said this year he will propose a new balanced budget with a supplemental plan to roll back the income tax increase.
Policy observers like the nonpartisan Civic Federation in Chicago have challenged Rauner's claim that he proposed a balanced budget proposal each year he's been governor. Last year, his budget proposal included a line of $4.6 billion in savings that was simply titled, "working together on a grand bargain," a reference to the negotiations at the time between the two parties in the legislature.
On Friday, Rauner suggested he wasn't aware of this item. "I'm not familiar with it," he said. His budget director at the time, Scott Harry, said last year the $4.6 billion figure assumed savings from a slew of controversial measures not yet enacted, including major changes to public pensions, the sale of a state government building in Chicago, and a still-nonexistent contract with many state employees that expired in 2015.
"We do need to have changes, that's what's clear," Rauner said. "If we take the attitude, 'We should never change anything about our structure or our system, we should just assume that whatever the spending is we just have to raise taxes and that's the only answer, no changes,' -- that would be a mistake that would really fail the people of Illinois. We do need to make changes and I'll be recommending some."
Rauner and Pritzker, the heir to the Hyatt hotel chain, are largely self-funding their campaigns. Pritzker, who some polling shows is pulling ahead, recently added $7 million of his own money to his campaign, bringing the total amount to $45 million.
Pritzker on Friday told the Herald & Review editorial board he's creating a political infrastructure to help Democrats win elections.
"As Democrats, we need to address the fundamental issues... job creation, trying to raise wages through job creation for our labor unions, but also a quality education for every child no matter where they live in the state and universal health care," said Pritzker. "I don't think that message has been core enough for the Democratic party for too many years."
Asked whether that meant Madigan, who also serves as chairman of the state Democratic Party, Pritzker said: "I think it speaks to a failure across the Democratic party, and yes, I think everybody that’s been involved in the party, whether it’s at the national level -- focused on Illinois as one of 50 states -- or on the state level, or on the county level, or local."
In his interview with the Herald & Review, Rauner also pointed to property tax relief and a freeze on how much local governments can ask property owners for. Democrats have consistently pushed back, citing concerns from municipalities and school districts that rely on the revenue.
"That's why I've pushed so hard to put more money in education," Rauner said. "If we can get the state to do more, that can relieve the burden on local property taxes."
The governor said he will push this year for fewer state regulations on "how (local governments) do outside contracting, how they do their competitive bidding, how they provide certain services. If there are two or three entities providing a service local governments can't consolidate and share services. Give Macon County, the city of Decatur to manage to their affairs themselves."
Rauner also disputed the findings of a January review of the state's new Medicaid payment system conducted by the auditor general, an officer set up by the legislature to review state operations.
It found the Health and Family Services agency had failed to monitor some $7 billion in state payments to private insurers who were awarded a $60 billion contract last year by the Rauner administration, and that DHFS had accidentally paid $500,00 in bills twice.
"I think those (findings) are fundamentally inaccurate, those are erroneous,"Rauner said. "I don't believe those figures, or the concerns, are valid and we'll have the truth come out in the near future."
The governor said he thinks there are misunderstandings and misinformation contained in the auditor general's report. "I think our teams in these departments are handling our managed care program and our Medicaid program very well. There's been a lot of fraud and abuse and mismanagement in the past, we're correcting it, and I think the teams are doing a fantastic job."
In January, Rauner's DHFS Director John Hoffman said the agency agreed with five of the six findings from the report, and had already started implementing changes before the report came out.