Who's Really Holding Illinois 'Hostage'?

Jun 5, 2016

Gov. Bruce Rauner marked the end of the legislative session with a blistering attack on Democratic legislators. He then embarked on an eight-city tour — mostly downstate — where he continued his critique.

One of Rauner’s main messages is that Democrats are holding the state budget “hostage” in order to get their way. I thought that accusation of political ill-will had a familiar ring, so I decided to take a closer look at the governor’s communication strategy.

To really get the full effect of Gov. Rauner’s rhetoric, you have to hear it for yourself: "Today, we end the spring session of the General Assembly in stunning failure."

This is from the last day of the spring legislative session. Rauner continued in this vein for a while, then moved on to talk about the state budget. He said it was essential to give stability and confidence to teachers, schoolchildren, and the "recipients of government services."

“We have got to have stability," Rauner said. "These services must be continued to be provided. They cannot be held hostage for this unbalanced budget that will force a massive tax hike on the people of Illinois next winter."

Listen to the word the governor repeats here: "We can’t hold our schools hostage for this massive tax hike. We can’t hold our government services hostage for this massive tax hike."

And just who, in Rauner’s formulation, is holding the state of Illinois “hostage” to a partisan wish list?

"President Cullerton was candid on Friday: they’ve been holding up operations funding to put pressure on our administration," Rauner said. "They want pressure in our corrections system. They want pressure in our healthcare system. They want pressure on our university system. That is wrong. It’s not fair. We can’t allow it."

Democrats have long argued that it’s Rauner who’s holding the state “hostage” to his partisan agenda. An in fact his attempt to flip the script is a complete reversal for the private equity investor-turned-politician.

You see, back before he was officially a candidate — in 2012 — Rauner was part of a panel discussion at an event sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute. Back then, he outlined a strategy for holding up the state budget — holding it hostage, Rauner might say now — in order to create pressure on the other party.

Rauner explained that Illinois has a long tradition of what he called “social justice” spending: “And what’s interesting: I think there’s a wedge issue here. … We cannot afford — we will crush our economy if we try to spend money on both high-cost, inefficient, bureaucratic, heavily unionized government, and a social safety net, to help the disadvantaged, the weak, and the poor, which many of us would like to be able to do. We can’t afford both."

Rauner then explained that this "wedge issue" would “drive” or pressure Democrats to turn their backs on their traditional allies in organized labor — like SEIU and AFSCME — in order to provide relief to “the disadvantaged, the weak, and the poor."

'I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party on that topic.'

“We have to make a choice," Rauner said. "I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party on that topic, and bring the folks who say, ‘You know what, for our tax dollars, I’d rather help the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty. I’d rather have my tax dollars going to that than the SEIU or AF-scammy, who are out there for their own interests.'"

This is what is at the heart of the so-called budget impasse in Illinois: Rauner has refused to say what spending cuts and tax increases he would support in order to balance the budget. He says he’ll only get into those details after Democrats adopt his partisan agenda to weaken organized labor and tilt other laws toward capital and away from workers, as with workers compensation and lawsuits.

But don’t take my word for it: here’s former governor Jim Edgar from a recent episode of the public radio program “The 21st”: "I think if you got to the budget, and dealt with revenues and expenditures, you could probably get an agreement. But that’s not what’s been holding this up. What’s been holding this up is the 'Turnaround Agenda,' which Gov. Rauner has inserted. And whether you like it or not, that is something different than usually what happened in the past."

Edgar described Rauner as the “800-pound gorilla” in the negotiations, and says his insistence on his partisan legislative agenda is what’s really blocking Illinois from having a comprehensive, balanced budget.

"And again, if he feels so strong on the 'Turnaround Agenda' — and apparently he does, to hold up the budget — I don’t know what you change. I don’t know how you change that in his thinking," Edgar said.

So why did candidate Bruce Rauner go from his 2012 notion of “driving a wedge issue” in the Democratic Party by using social service spending — to his argument this week that it’s Democrats who are holding the state “hostage”?

“In politics, you need to tell the story the way you want it told, so people will believe you and see you in a positive light."

Chris Mooney is a political scientist and director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. He says Rauner’s particular phrasing is worth paying attention to.

“The language that he uses is very evocative. Right? They’re holding the state ’hostage.’ That’s very violent and scary. And he’s going to be the — presumably — the person that's going to free the hostages, I guess. And if you were like me and were around when we had the hostages in Iran — as I know Bruce Rauner was — the word hostages means a lot."

I have long been intrigued by the governor’s disciplined and particular use of language, so I also called up Chicago communications guru Thom Serafin. He’s a former Statehouse reporter, and a longtime political observer. Serafin says the Democrats made an unforced error at the end of session.

“With a veto-proof majority in both houses, I was certain that a budget would be handed to the governor to deal with," he said.

Without that, Serafin says, a ninth-inning twist of fate lets Rauner come out on top.

“And now he’s campaigning, legitimately, that the majorities in both houses of government were unable to come to an agreement on a budget while the state is sinking," Serafin said. "And he’s legitimately got a pretty good beef right now."

And with another endless summer of “continuous session" on the horizon, Rauner is sure to continue ridin' herd on that beef.