by Dave Roeder, Innovation Illinois Research Fellow

in The State Journal-Register 7/05/16

On your mark, get set and then go, I suppose, if you can’t help it.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is off and running for a second term, declaring his intention to reporters to seek re-election in 2018. It’s the unofficial start of the campaign season for the race two years hence, and Illinoisans already wearied or repulsed by their state’s rolling crises and fiscal clownishness get to consider the prospect of more Rauner, maybe as a supporting act for a President Trump. Oh, joy.

At least a Rauner re-election drive will be an interesting exercise. If nothing changes for the next two years, his case for re-election will be one of the great mysteries of Illinois politics. What can he say for himself if his four years produce nothing but drama? “I kept those Democrats from raising your taxes” while letting old bills pile up and adding daily to the deferred cost of no budget and no clue forward? “I’m pro-education” when school openings in the fall are in question and state higher education has been throttled? “I’ve made Illinois better for business” when the unemployment rate is up alarmingly, standing higher than all but one other state, and companies that might invest here wonder if Springfield has gone mad?

Or maybe Rauner can try this: “I’m against big government, so I didn’t govern.” It would be closer to the truth.

Illinois has had many Republican governors who worked with Democratic legislatures to settle on priorities and fund state government. With Rauner, though, the art of compromise is lost. Compromise is work, yet Rauner won’t invest the time in it because he might have to break campaign promises.

This is a governor who avoids the tough decisions at all costs. He manages a do-the-minimum administration and praises state employees for “heroic” efforts to keep most services going, when it’s judicial orders that have allowed for 90 percent of the government to run without a budget. There wouldn’t be much heroism, or even keeping the lights on, if a judge had said state workers can’t be paid.

Rauner has had two cracks at proposing a responsible budget and both times didn’t live up to his constitutional duty. In his first year, his proposal was $2.2 billion in the red because it relied on hoped-for pension savings that indeed never materialized. Call it a rookie governor’s mistake. But then for Fiscal Year 2017, which for the state begins this July 1, Rauner drafted a plan that ran a $3.5 billion deficit, according to a Civic Federation analysis.

To close those gaps would have required politically explosive choices about expense cuts or tax hikes. Our governor has never had to account for the fundamental lie of his public life, that rescuing Illinois requires lower taxes and pro-business “reforms” guaranteed to reduce living standards without saving the state a dime. That’s enough to unleash the gods of capitalism and enrich state coffers, Rauner believes. They tried that in Kansas and it was a disaster. Here, the disaster is in progress.

When in doubt, Rauner panders. He’s been busy that way, traveling to small downstate communities to rail against equitable school funding or anything else he can call a bailout for Chicago. Playing one group against another is very Trump-like (apologies for that reference again). How Chicago can be a no-good moocher when the city and its surrounding counties produce 70 percent of the state’s economic activity is something only Rauner and his budget acolytes can explain.

Pandering, however, can work. With Rauner’s wealth, it swept him into office in 2014 despite a campaign with less policy depth than some pauper candidates from fringe parties have supplied. With $20 million in the campaign account and much more on call, Rauner and friends will again carpet bomb the airwaves.

It’s not cheap, but it’s handy when you’re foolin’ all of the people some of the time.