When running for office, future Gov. Bruce Rauner regularly pledged to bring unprecedented transparency to state government as part of the Republican’s campaign to turn around the Illinois economy.
But now, as the clock ticks down on the General Assembly’s spring session, the former private equity executive is holding his cards especially close to his vest in tense negotiations with Democratic leaders over the pro-business reforms he wants in exchange for consenting to their demands on how to close a $6 billion budget gap.
▪ Most talks are being held by special working groups, but the meeting times, locations and topics are secret. Lawmakers involved say Rauner’s staff has demanded they don’t reveal what was discussed.
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▪ Rauner has so far refused to let anyone see copies of legislation outlining his desired reforms, though he has publicly assured reporters the legislation exists, and more information is coming soon. On top of that, his legal staff has rejected freedom of information requests seeking the information.
▪ Rauner’s staff has consistently taken more than one month to provide copies of his non-public schedule in response to requests from The Associated Press. Those documents, once provided, are redacted – making it impossible to see who’s attending “legislative briefings” and other meetings with the governor, and therefore who may be influencing his policy decisions.
Closed door negotiations are hardly a new phenomenon in state capitals, where governors and legislative leaders often turn it into an art form, especially when time is running out to reach compromises. Illinois Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan – who has held that position for more than three decades except for one two-year period – is legendary for calling votes on complicated legislation presented to rank-and-file legislators just minutes beforehand, prompting howls from Republican lawmakers.
But it’s Democrats now criticizing Rauner for the similar secrecy, suggesting the first-time officeholder is conducting business as if he were still in the corporate world rather than a state capital, a dynamic that’s emerging from Illinois’ newly divided government.
“The idea the meetings themselves needed to be secret was just baffling to me given that the governor ran on a theme of wanting to be more transparent,” said Rep. Lou Lang, an assistant House majority leader from Skokie and member of the Legislature since 1987. “He doesn’t understand how the Legislature works. We are not his middle management. He is not the boss of Illinois government.”
Rauner rejects the criticism, arguing that he laid out his budget blueprint in February and the overall principles of his reform agenda in dozens of appearances over months.
“I don’t think I could be more transparent,” he said Thursday. “I’ve laid out everything we’re working on and why. I think we couldn’t be more crystal clear from our point of view. … I believe we’ll be able to come forward with a lot of detail in the not too distant future. “
The numerous working groups are comprised of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, focusing on various aspects of Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda,” including worker’s compensation reform, term limits, reforms to the legal systems, property taxes, and the budget. Citing the importance of fostering an environment conducive to bipartisan compromise, Lang, who sits on a committee focused on state worker ethics and compromise, said administration members have requested meeting discussions be kept private.
While Rauner has said several times in the past month that his office has put his legislative proposals into “bill form” and that the measures are ready to go, his office denied an AP Freedom Of Information Act request for copies of the documents.
Responding to AP requests, Rauner’s office has so far provided only the governor’s schedules for January through March. AP is appealing to the attorney general’s public access counselor because the scheduled that have been provided have redacted portions that appear to include the names of people with whom Rauner met or spoke.
David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said it’s a delicate dance for the first-time officeholder, who’s trying to push through an ambitious agenda and at the same time keep a promise of creating openness and transparency.
“Lots of work can get done behind closed doors because people aren’t trying to save face,” Yepsen said. At the same time, he said, Rauner “is new to politics, and he has to be careful about how he does this stuff. He and his people need to realize (the Democratic-led Legislature) is a co-equal branch of government and trust has already been damaged.”
With a May 31 deadline to pass a budget quickly approaching and both sides maneuvering for the upper hand, the traditionally-secretive Madigan is now trying to spotlight similar practices by Rauner.
The speaker has held large, open hearings, and scheduled several votes on legislation mirroring Rauner’s proposals in an effort to pressure the Republican governor in contentious budget negotiations.
“If the governor is serious about the changes he is proposing, the right thing to do now is for us to bring these issues into the open and have a constructive and open discussion, vote and see what steps need to be taken from there,” Madigan said in a statement about the votes.
Republicans call the speaker’s actions “blatantly hypocritical.”
“You’ve got shared governance for the first time in 12 years. We’re trying to build trust among each other and work together,” GOP state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said.