Metro-East News

Rauner says budget deal is ‘very close’

Gov. Bruce Rauner said Tuesday he’s close to reaching an agreement with legislative leaders on how to fix big holes in the state’s budget.

“We’re definitely not at a stalemate,” the Republican governor said during a stop at a Greenville business. “The process has taken much longer than it should have. We could have done this a number of weeks ago.”

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said earlier this week that Rauner’s proposed budget is “as unworkable as it is unconscionable.” Cullerton says Rauner’s spending plan would hurt the middle class by cutting programs such as public transportation, higher education and substance abuse treatment.

Rauner, speaking with reporters Tuesday after touring the Enertech geothermal business, sounded more hopeful for a budget resolution.

“There are 178 members in the General Assembly, and it’s sausage being made — everybody needs to weigh in, have an opinion,” Rauner said. “This is a $1.6 billion budget hole in the current fiscal year that I inherited, with a budget that I did not put in place. It’s a problem that we’re going to fix; we’ve got to fix it quickly.”

He added, “We’re very close. We’ve been close for a while. We’re just getting buy-in from certain legislators, and I believe we’ll get that done pretty soon.”

The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, has a shortfall of about $1.6 billion, due to Democrats approving a spending plan prior to the November election that didn’t include enough money to cover expenses. They had planned to return after the election to pass an extension of a temporary income tax increase that was scheduled to roll back on Jan. 1, but Rauner’s win over Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn put that plan on hold.

Rauner says raising taxes isn’t the answer and will hurt economic growth. He says the state must first fix “structural issues,” such as too much government bureaucracy and a too-cozy relationship between unions and legislators. He wants legislators to give him broad authority to move money and make cuts, but Senate Democrats have been reluctant to do so.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan said the Chicago Democrat believes it will be easier to get House approval for a spending fix if Rauner lays out where he would cut and which funds he would take money from to make up for shortages. Among the programs that already have run out of money is one that subsidizes day care for low-income residents.

The state faces a more than $6 billion shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Rauner’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year would cut more than $1 billion from Medicaid, slash in half the amount of tax revenue the state gives to municipalities and reduce funding on everything from higher education to public transportation.

Cities, interest groups and agencies that get state funds have been sounding the alarm. The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network joined the chorus Tuesday, warning that Rauner’s proposed budget would result in deep cuts to Illinois’ Breast and Cervical Cancer Program — including a more than 70 percent reduction in funding for cancer screenings and the elimination of Medicaid eligibility for women diagnosed with cancer through the program.

Rauner visited the Greenville business to tout what he calls a “turnaround agenda” for Illinois — a plan that he says will improve the state’s economy. The plan includes creating right-to-work zones. Rauner said local voters ought to be able to decide right-to-work issues.

“If you like the status quo, terrific. Keep it,” he said. “But I certainly want you to be able to decide.”

Also as part of the plan, Rauner said he’ll be pushing lawmakers to reform worker’s compensation laws to make Illinois’ rates more competitive with other states.

The governor asked audience members to help promote his pro-growth agenda by contacting legislators. He said it’ll be May before he knows whether he has enough votes in the legislature to get his platform measures passed.

“That’s when the votes are going to happen. We’ve got legislation being drafted,” he said. “I’ve been meeting with many members of the General Assembly in Springfield, and both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged we need change, we need more economic growth and we need more jobs and careers, and the property tax burden is too high.”

He added, “Everybody believes in local control, everybody believes in voter empowerment, so our message is resonating.”