Column

Miller: Reaction to Bruce Rauner speech might signal rough waters

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a governor openly and loudly laughed at on the House floor. At least not while he was present.

Gov. Bruce Rauner was doing pretty well with his legislative audience during his first State of the State address last week, delivering strong applause lines with his refreshing calls for bipartisanship. He even thanked legislators “for your service,” and predicted they would do “great” things together. He warned them that he would say things they liked and didn’t like and urged them to see the “big picture,” which will “lift up all of the people we’ve been chosen to represent.”

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus were especially receptive to the governor’s attacks on labor union apprenticeship programs. Rauner claimed about “80 percent of individuals in Illinois apprenticeship programs are white even though Caucasians make up fewer than 63 percent of our population,” and demanded that be addressed with legislation. Black and Latino legislators have tried for years with limited success to break those barriers, and no governor has ever so clearly sided with them.

Legislators erupted in loud applause when the governor proposed raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour. But when Rauner added “over seven years,” their laughter was even louder, and longer. Democrats appeared to realize they might’ve fallen for a bait and switch, and it was mostly downhill from that point on.  

Much of Rauner’s address was aimed at his campaign enemies. As usual, public employee unions were at the top of his list. “Government must never force its employees to fund activities they do not support,” Rauner claimed. But, by law, state workers are not required to pay full union dues. They are automatically enrolled into what’s called “Fair Share,” which is the portion of dues that funds things, such as collective bargaining, grievances, etc. They can opt in to full dues, which includes funding for things like political work, if they choose.

The Illinois Hospital Association backed Gov. Pat Quinn last year, and Rauner took a clear shot at the IHA last week. “While we currently ban contributions from many businesses with state contracts,” the governor said, “some of the largest recipients of taxpayer money, like hospitals that receive millions from Medicaid, are still able to funnel huge campaign donations to elected officials.” He then called for a campaign contribution ban from “organizations funded by entities receiving state Medicaid funds.”

But hospitals don’t fund the IHA’s political activities, mainly because most are not-for-profits and are banned by law from contributing. Pretty much all of the group’s political contributions come from hospital executives. 

The IHA was clearly surprised by the gubernatorial shot across its bow. “We’re not sure where this came from,” said an exasperated IHA executive. Not for nothing, but the IHA attempted to atone for its Quinn contributions by donating $100,000 to Rauner’s inauguration fund – and the check was cashed. 

By the time he got around to attacking the trial lawyers with a proposal to ban all attorney contributions to judicial candidates, not a single person applauded on either side of the aisle. He waited for a briefly uncomfortable moment, then moved on.

Rauner’s people say he feels “liberated” since the election to say whatever he wants, hence the constant references to his enemies list. 

There are those who believe (myself included) that there may be a method to the madness. Under this theory, the governor has planted his flag on a distant economic fringe so he can eventually drag the General Assembly off its current path. And if he’s eventually willing to compromise and tone things down, it just might work. 

But it would’ve been much better for Rauner if he was booed last week. From some I’ve talked to, he may even have wanted that to happen. Being booed by the “entrenched elite” would’ve been a net positive for him with the public. And legislators might’ve felt bad about booing him once they had time to reflect. Maybe they’d even feel the need to apologize for such a negative reaction.

When people are laughing at you, however, they don’t care what you think, and they’re most definitely not listening.  

Some rough waters are dead ahead. 

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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