Rauner Gives Illinois a Grade A

As Gov. Bruce Rauner will accurately tell you, he did not create Illinois’ financial problems.

But there is no question the inability of Rauner and the Democrats who lead the General Assembly to reach a budget agreement means the state deficit worsens by the day.

It’s more than just a number: Illinois now faces the prospect of a credit downgrade that could make it even harder to dig out of any hole. The state is billions of dollars and many months behind paying its bills. Social service agencies – drug treatment centers and sexual abuse counselors and the ilk – are closing because they haven’t gotten money from the state.

Rauner last week told a minority business conference that “I like to do things that get results. Results are all that matters.”

When asked about his during an exclusive interview with “Chicago Tonight” Rauner said he doesn’t believe Illinois is worse off since he became governor.

“I would say not. On things that we can control, I would give us an A,” Rauner said. “We’ve cut half billion dollars out of wasteful spending, we’ve eliminated $220 million of fraud and Medicaid, we’ve modernized our IT systems and increased productivity and driven down costs, and we’ve block more than $10 billion in tax hikes that the majority of the general assembly wanted to force on our economy, which would have damaged us more than our current status.”

But what about the elements he can’t control? Rauner bragged about his negotiating acumen during his campaign for governor – key aspects of serving as the state’s CEO require the administrative and legislative branches to work in concert.

“Success is all about persistence, and doing the right thing for the long term,” he said. “The work we’re doing now is not about today or the next election. It’s about our next generation and having a better future for children, grandchildren, our state, and balanced budgets for the long term. These are difficult changes, our system is broken, many of the career politicians created the current system.”

Though Rauner has been governor for more than two years, and his money is essentially responsible for funding the Illinois Republican Party, Rauner said he does not consider himself to be a career politician, and he says he never will be. He pointed out that he doesn’t take any salary, and called himself a “volunteer.”

Early this year there was momentum on a so-called “grand bargain” that would put an end to the impasse; Democrats blame the governor for killing it, though Rauner denies that. 

Rauner has in recent days publicly talked about a “grand bargain” deal being close, though on Tuesday, Senate President John Cullerton said, “If he thinks close that’s great. Tell us what it is we’re short on and maybe we can negotiate it.”

“We have to hope that the governor comes back to Springfield, from campaigning – stop campaigning for about six weeks. Govern. And then he can campaign on some successes,” Cullerton said.

Rauner was at Illinois State University – one of the state universities that just saw its credit downgraded on account of the lack of state funding. Rauner was there to meet Gary Comer College Prep Middle School students; the school is part of the Noble network, which Rauner has donated extensively too (he even has a school named in his honor). The goal of their trip was to give students a vision future success, so they can aspire to go to college.  

A noble cause, although earlier this month Northeastern Illinois University had to temporarily shut down for lack of state funding, and Chicago State University last year cancelled its spring break because of financial troubles.

Rauner didn’t directly respond when asked whether he’d send his kids to an Illinois public university at this time, and he correctly points out that Illinois had been losing students to out-of-state schools for years.

“We need to shrink the bureaucracy in our university system. We have an expensive overhead, pension, work rules, restrictions. Just like inside state government, we need to shrink that bureaucracy. We need to put our money in our schools, in our teachers, in our students, and we need the state to step up and do a better job supporting our schools,” he said. “We also need to eliminate the redundancy in our schools. Many of them offer the same majors and options, and we have too much overlap. We need to help streamline our university system.”

Rauner is also seeking change when it comes to charter schools; he’s pushing to put charters on equal ground for state funding as other public schools.

“Charter schools are public schools. They’re available to all the students in their vicinity, and it’s important they get equal funding on a pupil basis,” he said. “Today in Illinois, they don’t get equal funding, in Chicago or the state, and as part of our new funding formula, we’re encouraging charter schools to receive the same amount of money per student that standard public schools receive.”

The Illinois House is poised to advance a measure that would send more state funding to charters; a bipartisan agreement on a major education funding overhaul remains elusive in the Senate. 

Watch our full interview with Rauner below. You can also read an edited transcript of the interview.

What is your agenda for schools?

We want great schools in every neighborhood, in every community in the state of Illinois. And as part of that, I personally believe that having options, having choice, some kind of competition for students so that parents can choose the school that best fits their child is critically important to having high quality education for our young people.

Education is the most important thing we do. We got great public schools, that’s why I’m so proud of the fact that during my first year as governor increase support for schools $750 million, and as part of our new school funding formula, to get more equity across the state so that we get more money to low-income schools so they have funding that’s more equal with high-funding schools.

We are also encouraging equal funding for charter schools. Charter schools are public schools. They’re available to all the students in their vicinity, and it’s important they get equal funding on a pupil basis. Today in Illinois, they don’t get equal funding, in Chicago or the state, and as part of our new funding formula, we’re encouraging charter schools to receive the same amount of money per student that standard public schools receive.

How crucial is that component to your new funding formula? Would you sign something if charter school equality is not part of that formula?

The good news is that it looks like we have bipartisan agreement that we’re going to have equal funding for charter schools as part of a new funding formula for all public schools. Charter schools are public schools, as well as standard schools, and we’ve already got agreement on that point. That’s one of the reasons I’m optimistic.

You still have competing measures from Illinois Senators Andy Manar (D-48th District) and Jason Barickman (R-53rd District). At one point does that narrow down to one? What part of, presumably the Manar bill, would you say no to?

I know that Senator Manar has introduced a bill. I know Senator Barickman has introduced a bill. From everything I’m told and what I read so far, there are differences but they’re not worlds apart, and I believe we can bridge the differences. It’s a standard part of the legislative process. The senators are good at finding ways to negotiate—reduce the differences between the bills, and I think that process is going to be underway within days. I think we can get that done pretty soon. I’m optimistic.

Is it worth the rest of your agenda, which has taken a back seat because of the stalemate and the priorities you chose?

What’s clear is that we need to come together on a bipartisan basis to get good things done for the people of Illinois, and I’m personally committed to making sure that everything we do in state government is a better future for our children and our grandchildren and this state. We have a competitive economy, creating great careers for everyone, and we have outstanding public schools—public education available from cradle to career in every neighborhood. That’s why charter schools are so important, so valuable. In too many neighborhoods, the local public school is failing. It’s not providing an adequate education and many parents are frustrated. They feel like their local school isn’t fitting their child’s needs, and every parent regardless of their income deserves to have options. High-income parents have options, but many parents don’t have that flexibility because of their financial circumstances in life. But they deserve options, and that’s why charter schools are an important part of having good quality options for every family.

We have five out of nine public universities in a terrible financial state. Would you send your kid to one of these schools if you knew it wasn’t going to be around?

We have terrible credit rates for our universities, we have terrible credit ratings for our state government, we have terrible credit ratings for the city of Chicago. Illinois government and our university system have been mismanaged for years. This is not a problem of the last 18 months; this has been going on for years, and we need major change. That’s the reason we’re working so hard to get a truly balanced budget where we properly fund our university system for the long term. We have been losing students to other states for years because our instate tuition cost more than out-of-state tuition. We need to change that.

We need to shrink the bureaucracy in our university system. We have an expensive overhead, pension, work rules, restrictions. Just like inside state government, we need to shrink that bureaucracy. We need to put our money in our schools, in our teachers, in our students, and we need the state to step up and do a better job supporting our schools. We also need to eliminate the redundancy in our schools. Many of them offer the same majors and options, and we have too much overlap. We need to help streamline our university system.

Was that the plan all along? To force mergers, administrative layoffs, consolidate programs?

No, not at all. I’ve wanted a balanced budget with proper university funding for more than two years now. It’s outrageous the general assembly has not passed a balanced budget. We’ve introduced balance budgets, they’ve ignored them. We’ve introduced changes to our system so that we can keep our budgets balanced. The only way our budgets will stay balanced is if our economy grows faster than government spending, and in Illinois for decades, government spending has been going up, and job creation has been flat. We’ve got to change the system.

If you want some of these programs to consolidate, some of these universities to “shape up,” why hasn’t that been done? If not now, when?

There are negotiations underway with our Board of Higher Education, and universities talking about how they can streamline their overhead, how they can work together and specialize in certain majors. Those discussions are going on right now and I’m optimistic that they can lead to even better school options for our students, and more value for taxpayers.

You just sent out a fundraising letter that says Illinois residents deserve “a balanced budget without any tax increases.” At the same time, you said you want the grand bargain, which contains a tax increase, to pass and it’s closed. So which is it?

I introduced a balanced budget my first two months in office, and it had no new revenue, no new tax increases and had spending cuts. I was ignored, and the majority and the general assembly have said they don’t want to cut much, if at all, and they would rather support a tax hike. I’ve said I’ll go for new taxes, so amount of new revenue democrats are recommending. If we’re going to do that, we need structural change to make sure—

That’s not what your fundraising letter said. It said without any tax increases—

No, that would be the first choice. The first choice is always that. But if we can’t do that, and the democrats have made it clear they won’t cut enough to balance the budget, they want new revenue. I said I’ll go along but only if we have structural changes to grow new jobs, because if all we do is raise taxes, we might have a balanced budget for one year, but within two or three years, we’ll be unbalanced again because we’ve done nothing to slow down government spending. And our economy has been flat. We’ve basically created no new jobs for 17 years. We have to change that or our budgets will never stay balanced.

Isn’t Illinois in a worse situation than when you came in?

I would say not. On things that we can control, I would give us an A. We’ve cut half billion dollars out of wasteful spending, we’ve eliminated $220 million of fraud and Medicaid, we’ve modernized our IT systems and increased productivity and driven down costs, and we’ve block more than $10 billion in tax hikes that the majority or the general assembly wanted to force on our economy, which would have damaged us more than our current status.

“On things that you can control,” yet you campaigned as the negotiator. Is this a failure of negotiator skills?

The change is happening. It’s way slower and it breaks my heart to see how slowly things are changing. We need term limits on our elected officials; we need fair maps to have competitive general elections—

So no responsibility on your part outside of things that you can’t control, just in the administrative branch? 

Success is all about persistence, and doing the right thing for the long term. The work we’re doing now is not about today or the next election. It’s about our next generation and having a better future for children, grandchildren, our state, and balanced budgets for the long term. These are difficult changes, our system is broken, many of the career politicians created the current system.

When do you become the career politician?

I’m a volunteer. I’m taking no compensation, this is not my career. I’m doing this because I love Illinois and I want to change our system because it’s broken, and we’re going to make it good for our children and grandchildren.

A lot of people ask about your dropping the “g” in some words. Is that the real you?

Who says “Hunting?” You say “huntin’.” You talk how you talk. I can get formal if I need to. What’s wonderful about my work—I can wear clothes that I’m comfortable in, as opposed to needing to get dressed up as I had to in business.

The people of Illinois are my friends and it’s a privilege to work for them. I can just be myself, and it’s very humbling for me to work for the people of Illinois. I can go ride my motorcycle now in central Illinois with my buddies and farmers, it’s terrific. 


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