Rauner: We didn’t declare impasse; discusses first year in office

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By Mark Fitton

Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday said his negotiators haven’t declared an impasse in contract talks with the state’s largest public-employee union, but they’re thinking about it.

The governor’s remarks came during an interview with Illinois News Network’s Greg Bishop, during which Rauner reflected on his first year in office.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 on Friday said the Rauner team had unilaterally declared an impasse and blasted the administration for walking out on talks.

While the sides have traded allegations over who was at fault for the two sides leaving Friday without further talks scheduled, Rauner on Monday said his people did halt talks.

After 67 negotiating sessions, Rauner said, “what happened on Friday, our team asked them … ‘Well, gosh, you’ve rejected everything we've ever proposed (and) you’ve offered no new ideas ever — are we at impasse?’

“Our guys didn’t say we were or weren’t (at impasse),” the governor said. “We didn’t take any position. We asked the question, which I believe is a reasonable question.”

The state and AFSCME, which represents some 35,000 state employees, have been in talks for a year and without a contract for about six months.

Agreements signed by the two sides dictate that if either side says an impasse has been reached, the question will go to the Illinois Labor Relations Board for a ruling.

A finding of impasse could raise possibilities including an attempt by the state to impose new contract terms or, perhaps, lead to a strike.

Rauner said his staff is still studying the situation, and he wasn’t ready to announce a decision Monday. “Right now, I don’t want to say what our negotiating team is going to recommend in terms of the next step of process,” the Winnetka Republican said. “I don’t know.”

Rauner says he has honored his promise to not lock out state employees but added, “at some point our team has got to decide: Are we completely just spinning our wheels or are we actually going to get anything done?”

Although the state and AFSCME Council 31 still appear far apart on wages, insurance benefits, work rules and other items, the union has said it does not believe talks have reached impasse.

Not naturally patient

Rauner also briefly discussed his own self-inventory as a first-term governor who’s never held elected office before.

“Obviously, I’m learning as I go,”  said Rauner, 58, who was a successful venture capitalist before entering the 2014 governor’s race and defeating incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, D-Chicago.

“Sometimes I’m too blunt, too direct, I would say. I call it as I see it, and sometimes that can alienate somebody or a group,” he said. “Sometimes I’m impatient; sometimes I’ve just got to be more patient. I’m not that way by nature.

“I am persistent, and that ain’t going to change, but ... I’ve got to learn a little more patience.”

His agenda, the budget

That said, Rauner is still firmly behind at least five points of his “Turnaround Agenda,” which he says represents structural reform to Illinois’ political and business climates that is necessary if Illinois is to improve its bleak financial condition and halt an out-migration of jobs and people.

Those points include local property tax freezes coupled with “local options” for units of government to cut costs by opting out of prevailing wage laws and contracting rules, as well some items that now must be collectively bargained.

They also include term limits for elected state officials; more independent legislative redistricting; lawsuit reform and changes to the state’s workers compensation system — the latter two of which the governor says are necessary if Illinois is to stop bleeding jobs and grow again.

Rauner’s insistence on his agenda items has put him at loggerheads with legislative Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

He’s rejected their spending plan, which he said was $4 billion in the red, adding that although he’s willing to discuss some new revenue, he won’t do so without some of the reform he wants.

With Illinois now in Month No. 7 of fiscal year 2016 and still without a budget, Democrats contend Rauner’s holding hostage the budget, including funding for some human services.

Governor v. Speaker

While Rauner says he’s willing to negotiate, his comments show him still at odds with Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who’s held that position for all but two years since 1983.

“Clearly, the biggest disappointment is our failure, so far, to get Speaker Madigan or the legislators that support him to really negotiate in good faith with us to get structural reforms,” Rauner said Monday.

While the governor insists the No. 1 problem is the economy, the speaker has stuck to his own message: The No. 1 problem facing the state is the deficit budget, and it will take a mix of cuts and new revenues to resolve it.

Madigan maintains the costs of Rauner’s desired changes in collective bargaining, lawsuit reform and workers compensation land too hard on the middle class and are “extreme,” and that Democrats — and even some Republicans — won’t go down that road.

But GOP legislators so far have stood solidly beside Rauner, just as Democrats have aligned firmly with Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, said she thinks there are areas where Rauner and Democrats can come together, including on portions of the governor’s agenda. But she said Rauner has to take a realistic look at the makeup of the Legislature.

“The governor has overreached given the fact there are Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, so to go for the nuclear option just isn't possible.”

Rough first year?

Although not happy about the stalemate in Springfield nor the lack of a contract with AFSCME, Rauner cites record funding for Illinois primary and secondary education as well as new contracts with 17 bargaining units representing some 5,000 workers as high points in his Year 1.

And he says anyone who expects him to back away from what he considers essential reforms needs to think again.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, discussed Rauner’s first year in office on Monday before Illinois News Network sat down with the governor.

He suggested that while it might be fair to say, “Gov. Rauner’s had a rough year, Illinois’ has some rough problems.”

Rauner may have spent too much time in campaign mode and not enough in governing mode, Yepsen said, but the governor has also tried to address big problems that he didn’t create — and he still has at least three years to keep at it.

“I give him credit for putting additional revenues on the table,” Yepsen added. “It’s not easy for a Republican to do that. Many in that party don’t like the idea of any additional taxes.”

Yepsen also said he doesn’t necessarily believe either Rauner or Madigan is playing for nothing but supremacy in the November 2016 elections. If either one is, he added, it might be a mistake.

“I don’t think either the Democrats or the Republicans are going to be able to hang this budget dilemma solely on the other,” he said.

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