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Grading the Governor

Six months in, how is Governor Bruce Rauner doing? Spoiler alert: He needs improvement.

Illustration: Jesse Lenz

If Bruce Rauner’s vision of shaking up Springfield meant making a lot of noise, his first six months have been a rousing success. But if the goal was to get something substantive actually, well, done, Illinois’s new governor has yet to impress, accomplishing less in his first spring in power than any predecessor since before fellow Republican Jim Edgar took office in 1991. Here’s how well, at presstime in late June, he has delivered on seven key promises he made during the election.

C Shaking up Illinois

Dems buzz-sawed much of Rauner’s “turnaround agenda.” Workers’ comp and right-to-work legislation, tort reform, and a property tax freeze all got nixed. So far, Rauner has notched only two notable wins: a $1.6 billion plug of the state’s ailing 2015 budget and a law helping bring the Obama library to Chicago. While Republicans (and even some Dems) are giddy about how Rauner has stood up to Mike Madigan, the gov’s attempts to flex his executive muscles have, to this point, either failed or been widely panned—most notably his poorly timed $26 million cuts to social programs, including services for children with autism, made on World Autism Day. (Rauner later reversed the cuts.)

DFixing the State Budget

Rauner vetoed the Dems’ overbudget spending plan, insisting that any deal include his stymied turnaround agenda. After railing against “phony” budgeting, Rauner originally touted $2.2 billion in smoke-and-mirror savings from pension changes that are likely a legal no-go. Still deadlocked with Dems at presstime, Rauner’s proposed $420 million in cuts include grounding the state’s fleet of aircraft (and frequent flyers Madigan and John Cullerton). OK, cuts are good. What about new revenues? Rauner: silence.

DPlaying Well with Others

In his inaugural address, Rauner vowed “to work on a bipartisan basis to drive results and get things done.” Lawmakers of both parties say he has made a point of trying to talk one-on-one with them—at the governor’s mansion, at breakfasts and dinners, or by phone. But Madigan characterizes Rauner as offering only “smiles” and “handshakes” in private meetings, and publicly, the governor has ripped Madigan and Cullerton for blocking his probusiness agenda. In June, he appeared in unprecedented TV ads attacking Madigan for their summer stalemate.

DReforming Pensions

In May, the state Supreme Court torpedoed a 2013 pension law, forcing Rauner to scrap his original idea to move state workers into 401(k)-like plans in place of future state pension benefits. So far Rauner hasn’t offered clear details for his overall Plan B. Or C. Hence the D.

B -Supporting Education

By signing a $244 million funding increase in the last week of June, Rauner spared the state’s K–12 schools from a massive fiscal bloodletting. Public universities weren’t as fortunate, facing cuts of 31 percent under his budget proposal. He has shown even less love for Chicago Public Schools, suggesting that the district might be best off declaring bankruptcy. Yikes!

CImproving Transparency

Days after his inauguration, Rauner listed all of the state government’s political appointees online, information that other governors never made so accessible. But credit he got for that was drowned out when working groups he set up to hash out his turnaround agenda were ordered by his office to operate in absolute secrecy.

ATaking on Unions

Campaigning, Rauner pledged to crush the clout-heavy union “bosses.” In office, he almost immediately made union busting a cause célèbre. Faced with hostile Democratic opposition, he has mostly used his bully pulpit—not the legislative process—to do this. In February, he signed an executive order to end “fair-share” withholdings for nonunionized state workers, but the move faces a legal challenge. He also has taken a hard line—think wage freezes and health care premium hikes—against AFSCME Council 31, which includes 36,000 state workers.


C +Overall Grade

Ask the governor’s office, and they’ll tell you that Rauner deserves high marks. They blame the nasty gridlock on Madigan and Cullerton’s joint interests in “protecting the political class at the expense of the middle class,” as spokesman Lance Trover put it. Yet the reality is: With next to zero support from the Democratic supermajorities—combined with Rauner’s stubborn reluctance to compromise—Springfield has descended even further into dysfunction, if that is even possible, and the governor has been forced to issue largely meaningless executive orders to try to get his way. It’s still early, but for many Illinoisans who hoped the über-successful businessman could finally solve the state’s five-alarm crises, Rauner has come across as more of a blustery ideologue than a political problem solver. “I don’t think Rauner is off to a very good start,” says David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

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