Rauner, Democrats continue war of words

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By Mark Fitton

Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — The war of words over the lack of a state budget and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” continued this week, though the statehouse remained largely quiet with lawmakers not scheduled to return until Oct. 20.

In a speech Wednesday and a follow-up statement on Thursday, Rauner’s message was that restrictions on collective bargaining for public employees — one of his top agenda items — aren’t that unusual and, in fact, have been previously backed by Democrats.

Democrats responded the governor might want to check the outcomes of his examples and noted those pieces of legislation were of far more limited scope than Rauner’s proposals.

“Many Democrats, including the House speaker and House majority leader as well as the Senate president and Senate majority leader, have voted in recent years to limit and remove collective bargaining requirements in an effort to save taxpayers money,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in an emailed statement Thursday.

““Twice in the last four years, Illinois Democrats voted to reform collective bargaining, but now they are hiding behind it to try to force spending higher and raise taxes on the people of Illinois. The notion that collective bargaining is sacrosanct to the Democratic Party is nothing more than political gamesmanship to protect the status quo and hurt taxpayers,” Trover wrote.

Following on the governor’s speech to a business group in the Chicago suburbs, the first-term Republican’s administration cited the Pension Reform Act of 2013 and the Labor Reform Act of 2011, which drew more than 70 Democratic votes in the General Assembly, according to the governor’s office.

Democrats say those were limited-purpose bills that ultimately did not turn out as well as anyone would have liked.

“It’s pretty amazing the two bills they cite were the pension reform that was found unconstitutional  and a school reform bill aimed primarily at Chicago that ended up in a strike -- so, two pretty embarrassing examples by the governor,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

“Again, as the speaker points out, we need to focus on the budget,” Brown said. “We need to recognize that all the disruptions we see in these recent days are the governor’s failure to put appropriation bills in place. We could avoid all this disruption,” Brown said. “Let’s focus on the budget.’”

Senate Democrats struck a similar chord, indicating they want the governor back at the table to talk about the lack of a fiscal year 2016 budget, which is more than three months overdue.

“The governor’s office is going out of their way to remind us all of the Senate (John) President’s leadership and ability to negotiate with unions and advance meaningful compromises,” said Cullerton, D-Chicago, spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon. “The governor’s office should do the same.”

Federal indictment

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools system, has been indicted nearly two dozen counts alleging corruption.

Zachary Fardon, U.S. States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said the 23-count indictment alleges Byrd-Bennett used her position to award lucrative no-bid contracts to her former employers in exchange for bribes and kickbacks.

She is accused of steering no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to The Supes Academy LLC and Synesi Associates LLC in exchange for promises of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The companies agreed to conceal the kickback money by funneling it into accounts set up in the names of two of Byrd-Bennett’s relatives, according to the indictment.

Byrd-Bennett, who is also the former head of Cleveland schools system, is to be arraigned  Tuesday in Chicago.

Medical marijuana

A state advisory board has recommended eight conditions be added to the list of diseases and conditions eligible for the state’s medical marijuana pilot program.

There are currently 39 qualifying illnesses. The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board recommends adding chronic pain due to trauma, chronic pain syndrome, chronic postoperative pain, intractable pain, osteoarthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The approval of the state’s director of public health, Dr. Nirav Shah, would be needed to put those conditions on the pilot program list.

The Rauner administration has been reluctant to expand the list of conditions, saying the widening the list of conditions before medical marijuana begins to be dispensed would be premature. Shah last month declined a list of 11 conditions from the panel, and the governor vetoed a legislative attempt to add PTSD to the list.

State-approved dispensaries are expected to begin operating later this month or early next.

Parole board

The state’s 15-member Prisoner Review Board member is two members light after Rauner’s decision to remove one member and accept the resignation of another.

The governor on Oct. 2 removed Eric Gregg of Harrisburg from the board and announced he’d accepted the resignation of Adam Monreal of Chicago.

The governor’s office opened its own investigations of both after extensive reporting by the Belleville News-Democrat regarding questionable information on the men’s bankruptcy filings, as well as indications of outside employment, which is forbidden for members of the review board.

Members of the review board receive a state salary of about $86,000.

Illinois News Network journalist Greg Bishop contributed to this report.

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