The road ahead: How Bruce Rauner might be able to work with the General Assembly

By Eric Cortellessa 

Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner unveils his transition team and discusses his plan to work with Democratic leadership in the General Assembly.
Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner unveils his transition team and discusses his plan to work with Democratic leadership in the General Assembly.

Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner is vowing to make Illinois the most compassionate and competitive state in America. He ran his campaign based on restoring the health of the state’s fiscal house and improving its economy. But he hasn’t fleshed out any actual plan for how to accomplish his goals, according to many analysts who are watching his moves closely.

“So far we haven’t seen much out of Rauner as to what policies he is going to push for once he gets in office,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois Chicago and a former Chicago alderman.

With Rauner’s inauguration approaching, many political experts are wondering what course of action he will pursue once he takes office.

Among the many issues Rauner will be tasked with, he likely will have to start with reforming the state’s pension system and a broad-based effort to raise the minimum wage, according to Simpson.

Rauner has indicated his biggest legislative priorities are enacting “pro-jobs reforms such as tax and tort reform,” said Lyndsey Walters, Rauner’s communications director. He has warned that raising the minimum wage, something that Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to do during the veto session, will hurt Illinois’ overall competitiveness.

But as all governors who have come before Rauner know, what they would like to do isn’t always the same as what they can do.

One of the main questions pundits are weighing is how Rauner will be able to work with a General Assembly controlled by Democrats. The former hedge fund manager has expressed a willingness to work with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, but it isn’t clear how willing they will be to work with him.

Joe Matthewson, former press secretary for Gov. Richard Ogilvie and professor of law and ethics at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, thinks Madigan and Cullerton will have reason to cooperate.

“Now the Democrats control everything. They control their votes very well,” he said. “If they decide that whatever Rauner proposes is necessary and will benefit them and their constituents, I think there is the potential for that kind of a deal.”

Matthewson remembers the Democrats’ relationship with the Republican governor he worked for in the early 1970s. When Ogilvie passed the state’s first income tax, the Democrats supported it but knew it would be unpopular. With a Republican executive, they were able to pin the blame on him and yet pass legislation they believed in, according to Matthewson. “Ogilvie took the heat,” Matthewson said. “He was defeated for re-election four years later. People never forgave him. He took the fall for the income tax and the Democrats knew … that he would take the heat.”

Mathewson thinks Democrats will be able to do the same dance with Rauner—letting him propose unpleasant reforms while providing enough Democratic votes from safe seats to get the legislation passed.

While Rauner hasn’t outlined the policies he will champion, he has insisted he will try to find common ground through bipartisan solutions.

“Our solutions will be bipartisan,” Rauner told the media when he announced his transition team. “I believe we have a mandate based on this election to provide bipartisan solutions. For the first time in many years, we have a Republican governor, we have a Democratic legislature. And our mission is not to bicker, not to waste time arguing, finding petty faults. Our mission is to serve the people.”

One of the things Rauner needs to be cautious of is moving to right now that he has been elected, one political consultant warns.

“Republican governors in heavily Democratic states often make the mistake of running as a moderate but then governing as a conservative,” said Vinny Manchillo, a partner at Glass House Strategy, a political consulting firm in Plano, Texas. “But the real key is to be who you said you were during the campaign so that people can recognize consistency and feel that they got the guy they voted for.”

During the campaign, Rauner indicated a readiness to pass the minimum wage, but with a caveat. In an advisory referendum on the ballot in November, 63 percent of Illinois voters favored raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2015. Rauner, however, has been urging lawmakers to not move forward on the issue before he is in office so that he can implement a minimum wage hike as part of a larger package of financial reforms that include worker’s compensation laws and changes to the tort-law system.

It’s mostly a moot point. When Quinn tried to push through a bill, Madigan declined to bring it up for a vote. Now Rauner will face a General Assembly determined to raise the wage.

Whatever Rauner wants to accomplish will be an uphill battles because of the Democratic numbers in the legislature. Democrats control 71 of 118 seats in the House and 40 of 59 seats in the Senate. That means any veto Rauner wields can be overturned by a two-thirds vote.

“He still faces a Democratic supermajority that can override his veto,” Matthewson acknowledged. “So if Madigan rallies the rest of the Democrats to pass a minimum wage hike without Rauner’s proposed reforms, they may be able to circumvent the executive.”

Rauner will also be tasked with handling the state’s pension crisis. In November, a Springfield judge ruled Quinn’s 2013 pension reform bill unconstitutional. If the Illinois Supreme Court upholds that, Rauner will need to come up with a replacement.

During the campaign Rauner said he would cut benefits to retirees and current state workers, along with shifting the state to a 401K system.

Rauner spokeswoman Walters acknowledged it would be a challenge to touch the retirements of so many people without creating a political backlash. That’s why both parties will have to be onboard. “It is an ambitious agenda that will require close, bipartisan cooperation with the General Assembly,” she said.

That is one place where Matthewson thinks the Democrats will be able to work with Rauner.

“Pension reform is endlessly complex and any fixes will anger lots of people,” he said. “Madigan will likely be able pass the parts of Rauner’s plan he thinks will work. Then the Democrats will attack Rauner for it.”

Others political analysts aren’t as optimistic as Matthewson.

“It’s no secret that Madigan largely runs the legislative show. Democratic governors have had difficulties working with him, so you can imagine what it will be like for a Republican like Rauner,” warns Simpson.