Gov. Bruce Rauner gave his second State of the State address Wednesday, highlighting his plans for education and pension reform, but the governor showed no sign of abandoning the "turnaround agenda" that has been the focus of a months-long budget impasse in Illinois.
"All of us in this chamber had a difficult year together in 2015, as we debated a budget with structural reform," Rauner said. "But it is not too late for this General Assembly to make historic progress for the people of Illinois."
Throughout the Wednesday speech, protesters filled the Capitol rotunda, calling for an end to the budget stalemate. The group chanted "Budget cuts have got to go," and "No more cuts."
Rauner offered a different tone from in his speech a year ago, noting that Illinois "can't wait any longer," and calling for a "grand compromise" that will "cast partisanship and ideology aside."
"If each of us commits to serious negotiation based on mutual respect for our co-equal branches of government, there’s not a doubt in my mind we can come together to pass a balanced budget alongside reforms," Rauner said. "If we work together, Illinois can be both compassionate and competitive."
Rauner began his roughly 30-minute speech by discussing job creation, singling out union leaders and trial lawyers for "putting pressure" on lawmakers to "keep the status quo," and revealing plans to change worker's comp in the state and reduce property taxes.
"But if we don't offer a competitive environment for businesses, pretty soon the unions won't have any more jobs to unionize and the trial lawyers won't have any more businesses to sue," said. "All I'm asking for is a return to balance in this state, 'cause right now, we don't have competitive balance and jobs are leaving."
He called leaders of state public employee unions like the American Federation of the State, County and Municipal Employees as "out-of-touch with reality" when it comes to contract negotiations with state workers.
He also addressed compromises that have been made in his time as governor, including his recent potential pension agreement with Democratic Senate President John Cullerton.
Last week, the first Republican governor in 12 years revealed plans to back a pension reform plan proposed by Cullerton, but Cullerton later revealed the plan the governor outlined was not his plan and “goes beyond what we discussed and beyond what I support.”
Rauner said in his speech Wednesday he plans to "work closely with President Cullerton" to "finalize language as soon as possible." The move could save $1 billion a year in costs, he said.
Cullerton responded by saying in a statement that Rauner has "moved a long way from his initial proposal" and he appreciates "the time the governor has taken to better understand our model."
In his education plan, Rauner outlined plans to "provide proper funding for early childhood education," give school districts more flexibility for bargaining and contracting, create new schools for "disconnected youth" and create a plan not based on the PARCC system that will measure students' progress in each grade.
Rauner recently supported new legislation from Republican lawmakers that would allow the state of Illinois to take over Chicago Public Schools and permit the financially troubled school district to declare bankruptcy.
The plan was opposed by Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union, however.
"If the governor wants to work with Senate Democrats, committing to a better school funding system is a good way to start," Cullerton said.
Still, a cloud of $9 billion in unpaid bills hovered in the air in Springfield as Rauner gave his address. No budget has been approved and there’s no sign lawmakers and the governor are making progress.
“In the end, we have to have a budget," said State Rep. Lou Lang. "If he continues to stubbornly insist on the political agenda that he keeps raising, it has nothing to do with the budget of the state of Illinois. It’s not going to go well.”
Cullerton also criticized the governor's budget stance.
"On a daily basis our safety net is unraveling, leaving disabled seniors and homeless veterans nowhere to go," he said in a statement. "We're not honoring our student aid commitments to college students. We're not providing any public support to our public universities and colleges. That's all because of the stance the governor has taken over the state's budget. He caused this. He can end it."
The uncertainty was sensed at the state capitol as those who depend on state funds are feeling the impacts.
“While it is good to hear that the governor may be changing his tone on education and criminal justice reform, there are still children and teens in Berwyn right now that aren’t receiving mental health counseling today because of this continued impasse," said Assistant Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford.
Among those suffering from the budget impasse are the United Way and Lutheran Social Services, which anticipates cuts for the thousands that use their home health care services in Illinois and 29 other programs the organization provides.
“We’ve hung on for seven months and the government owes us about $6.5 million in nonpayment for services,” said Mark Stutrud, CEO of Lutheran Social Services. “The saddest part of course is the 4,700 individuals that we will no longer serve.”