Did Rauner 'Pull Votes' Off The Grand Bargain?

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 1:36 pm

Ten Republican senators voted for at least one bill in the grand bargain. We asked all of them about Gov. Bruce Rauner's role in stopping them from going further.

[A breakdown of Republican voting on the grand bargain and contacts with the Rauner administration follows the story.]

TRANSCRIPT: Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to insist that he is not responsible for derailing the state Senate's so-called grand bargain. But Democrats say he pulled Republican votes off the bipartisan deal, which was trying to end Illinois' budget stalemate.

Both assertions cannot be true — so I decided to investigate.

This back-and-forth has been going on for three weeks now. That's when the grand bargain went off the rails.

Rauner gave this assessment at an event Monday.

RAUNER: “The Senate deal is stalled. It’s going slowly. I’m trying to push it. Keep it going. Get a compromise."

Notice how Rauner uses the third person to describe the deal — it is stalled. But he switches to the first person to say his role is trying to "push it, keep it going."

Democrats, like Sen. Heather Steans, have a different take on what’s happening.

STEANS: “In fact I believe the governor’s office has been interjecting themselves and pulling off Republican votes anytime we are actually believe we’re going to be going on the floor for a vote."

Democrats point to March 1st. That was supposed to be the final set of votes on the grand bargain, A day earlier, a number of Republican senators helped to pass five of the dozen or so bills.

But something changed overnight, and the Republican leader told Democrats she would be the only "yes" vote on the remainder of the package. Democrats say they heard the governor called people into his office and threatened them. The administration denies that.

But it leaves the question of whether Rauner took votes off the deal. The governor was asked about this in an interview on Chicago public radio station WBEZ:

HOST: Senate Democrats said that you pulled them away and said, ‘Don’t vote on this.’”

RAUNER: “Well, that’s not true, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

To assess the truth of this claim, I went back through the roll calls of each of the five grand bargain bills that passed the day before the deal fell apart. I found 10 Republicans who voted for at least one of the bills. Some voted for three or even four parts of the bargain.

I set out to talk to all 10, and was able to interview six. Three others did not respond to multiple phone messages, and a spokeswoman for Republican Leader Christine Radogno issued a statement.

One common thread is that most of the people I spoke to did have contact with the Rauner administration, either through staff or, as in the case of Sen. Dale Righter from Mattoon, the governor himself.

RIGHTER: “I went down to the governor’s office, but the governor asked me what I thought.”

Righter says the Democrats want to think of the governor as a guy who’s threatening members of his own party because it fits into what he calls their political caricature of Rauner.

RIGHTER: “But it doesn’t match — like a lot of caricatures — it doesn’t match the reality, and I think that’s the case here. The governor interceded because he didn’t think the deal was right yet.”

Righter voted for one piece of the grand bargain, but says like Rauner, he too didn't think the full deal was right yet.

Still, it's worth noting that even Righter, an ally of the governor, used the word "interceded" to describe Rauner's actions that day.

RIGHTER: “Was the governor involved in this? Well yeah he was. But he’s the governor, he gets to be involved in these things.”

But during that WBEZ interview, Rauner deflected blame, pointing to outside groups pressuring senators.

RAUNER: “Many of the Republicans who are willing to compromise have been attacked by other groups.”

Sen. Pam Althoff is a Republican from McHenry. She voted yes on three parts of the grand bargain the first day of voting, and says she too heard from the governor's people.

ALTHOFF: “I believe he made his feelings known that he felt that the grand bargain did not go far enough for the taxpayer. ... He had some recommendations and suggestions that he would like incorporated into some of our negotiations, which were very valid and made people reconsider.”

I asked Althoff if she was ready to vote on some of the grand bargain bills that second day.

ALTHOFF: “I think that we felt in general that it was something that we certainly could pass over to the House for much further negotiation.”

That said, Althoff, like all six Republican senators who spoke to me for this story, either say they support the governor or are at least happy to have a Republican governor to work with.

Be that as it may, it seems clear that it was the governor's "intercession" that made at least some Republican senators "reconsider" their support for the grand bargain.

Five grand bargain bills passed the Senate on Feb. 28. Here they are, listed in the order they were called:

  • Senate Bill 3

    What it would do: Make it easier for voters to abolish local government.

    Republicans voting yes: Althoff, Anderson, Nybo, Oberweis, Radogno, Righter, Tracy

  • Senate Bill 8

    What it would do: Change state laws regarding procurement of goods and services.

    Republicans voting yes: Althoff, Anderson, Nybo, Oberweis, Radogno, Syverson, Tracy

  • Senate Bill 7

    What it would do: Allow new casinos in Chicago, Rockford, and other cities across Illinois.

    Republicans voting yes: Fowler, Radogno, Syverson, Tracy

  • Senate Bill 5

    What it would do: Provide state support for teacher pensions in the Chicago Public Schools.

    Republican voting yes: Radogno

  • Senate Bill 6

    What it would do: Approve state government spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

    Republicans voting yes: Althoff, Anderson, Fowler, McCann, Radogno, Syverson, Tracy

Ten of the Illinois Senate’s 22 Republicans voted for at least one component of the grand bargain on Feb. 28. Eight switched to yes after previously voting no or “present" when two grand bargain measures were called on Feb. 8. Here’s a breakdown of how they all voted, and how they respond to my inquiries about whether the Rauner administration played a role in derailing what would have been a second day of grand bargain voting on March 1:

* * *

Sen. Pamela Althoff

Hometown:

McHenry

Voted for: Senate Bills 3, 8 and 6

Did Althoff talk to the governor? “No, I did not talk to him personally."

Did Althoff talk to a member of the governor’s staff? “Yes, absolutely.”

What effect did that have? “I believe he made his feelings known that he felt that the grand bargain did not go far enough for the taxpayer. I don’t think that that’s new information. I think that he was abundantly clear. I just think that the messaging was a little bit different this time. He had some recommendations and suggestions that he would like incorporated into some of our negotiations, which were very valid and made people reconsider.”

Would Althoff have voted for the grand bargain bills absent hearing the governor’s views? “I think that the collaboration between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate was moving in a very positive direction. I think that we felt in general that it was something that we certainly could pass over to the House for much further negotiation.”

* * *

Sen. Neil Anderson

Hometown:

Rock Island

Voted for: Senate Bills 3, 8, and 6

Did Anderson talk to the governor or anyone from Rauner’s office? "No, I didn’t have any contact with the governor’s office.”

Would Anderson have voted for the remaining grand bargain bills absent the governor expressing his concerns? “Depends on the bill. … I’m not going to vote for a tax increase at this point. We have to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and I don’t think asking them to open their checkbook right now when we’re not making any more significant cuts — I don’t think that’s fair."

* * *

Sen. Dale Fowler

Hometown:

Harrisburg

Voted for: Senate Bills 7 and 6

Did not respond to phone messages left in his district office on two separate days.

* * *

Sen. Sam McCann

Hometown: Plainview

Voted for: Senate Bill 6

Did not respond to phone messages left in his district office on two separate days.

* * *

Sen. Chris Nybo

Hometown:

Elmhurst

Voted for: Senate Bills 3 and 8

Did not respond to phone messages left in his district office on two separate days. Back on March 1, the day the grand bargain fell apart, Nybo was asked about Democratic allegations that Republicans had been “threatened" by Gov. Rauner. “No comment,” he said.

* * *

Sen. Jim Oberweis

Hometown:

Sugar Grove

Voted for: Senate Bills 3 and 8

Did Oberweis talk to the governor? “I ran for reelection for only one reason: That’s because I believe in the governor, I believe in what he’s trying to do, and I agreed to commit another four years of my life to try to help him turn around the mess that we have here in Illinois. So not in any way did he threaten me or would he threaten me. I did talk briefly to (Chief of Staff) Rich Goldberg in his office at about that time just to get a little more understanding of their concerns.”

Was the administration urging people not to vote for the remaining grand bargain bills? “I think there is — or was, at least — concern in the governor’s office about trying to hold together to negotiate a better agreement. The background on this is Sen. Radogno negotiated an agreement with Sen. Cullerton initially without much input from the Republican caucus. And to be honest with you, she negotiated a very bad bill, or a bad agreement. I didn’t refer to it as the 'grand bargain;’ I referred to it as the 'bad bargain.’ Essentially it was providing a lot of tax increases and very little reforms."

Was Oberweis ready to vote yes on the remaining grand bargain bills, like the tax increase? “I sure as hell am not ready to vote yes then and I’m not ready to vote yes now. I’m opposed to it unless and until we get significant commonsense reforms, along with a property tax freeze and a temporary income tax increase."

* * *

Sen. Christine Radogno, Minority Leader

Hometown: Lemont

Voted for: Senate Bills 3, 8, 7, 5 and 6 (Radogno is the only Republican to vote for all grand bargain bills.)

We emailed Radogno’s spokeswoman the following questions:

  1. Was Radogno indeed prepared to vote on the grand bargain bills on March 1, as Democrats said?
  2. I've been told Radogno went to Cullerton on March 1 and that she told him Rauner had been threatening her members, and that's where that idea took root in the Democratic caucus. What really happened that day? Was someone threatened, cajoled, suggested to, or otherwise urged to vote no?
  3. Did Radogno talk to Rauner or (Chief of Staff) Rich Goldberg or anyone else from the administration on Feb. 28 or March 1?
  4. Does she regard the governor's influence in her caucus as appropriate? Meddling? Something else?

Spokeswoman Patty Schuh responded with the following statement: "Leader Radogno continues to work with her caucus and Senate colleagues to find compromises that can end Illinois‘ budget stalemate. We're working through individual components toward what we hope leads to a comprehensive solution that could pass the General Assembly and be signed by the governor."

* * *

Sen. Dale Righter

Hometown:

Mattoon

Voted for: Senate Bill 3

Did Righter talk to the governor? “I went down to the governor’s office, but the governor asked me what I thought. … The governor interceded because he didn’t think the deal was right yet. And I understand the Democrats may be frustrated about that, but I think they’ve massively overreacted here. If they want this to become law, the governor’s going to be involved, because he has to sign it.”

Would Righter have voted for the remaining grand bargain bills absent the governor expressing his concerns? “I was not (ready to vote yes). I’m the Republican spokesperson on Appropriations I, the primary budget committee in the Senate, and I’m going to tell you what: None of the rack-ups, or the informal worksheets, that have been circulating around here ... get you to a balanced budget. So we’re gong to go through all this exercise and do all these other things so we can go back home and say we didn’t fix the problem? I think that would be a tragic mistake."

* * *

Sen. Dave Syverson

Hometown:

Rockford

Voted for: Senate Bill 8

Did Syverson talk to the governor? “I did talk to the governor and he shared his concerns, which I agreed with. And I also shared mine. I thought that we’re really on the same page: Let’s work on the things that we agree on and work on the others later on. … I don’t think it was heated, because we both want the same end, and maybe (have) just a slightly different way of getting there."

What effect did that have? “I don’t think he pulled votes off. I think he raised the concerns that we don’t have agreement on the toughest issues, so let’s put a pause until we can get something bigger done. And that helps keep the pressure on getting those bigger items done. It’s easy to vote for the simple ones. The tough ones are the budget and the revenue and the pensions — and the business reforms on the Democratic side. Those are the tough ones. So let’s get an agreement, if we can, on of them. So then we can move them all so in essence you have some cover: 'I voted for things I didn’t like, but I had to do that to get the things I did like.’ And in the end we have a grand bargain.”

Would Syverson have voted for the grand bargain bills absent hearing the governor’s views? “No. … In my 20 years, the grand bargain is really the most large, sweeping pieces of legislation that we’ve ever packaged together. So it is a massive change in the way we do things. And so there’s always bound to be a couple hiccups. In this case, there were some questions raised about some of the sticking points that were still in there."

* * *

Sen. Jil Tracy

Hometown:

Quincy

Voted for: Senate Bills 3, 8, 7 and 6

Did Tracy talk to the governor? “No I did not. I talked to some of his staff, certainly, but I did not talk to the governor.”

What effect did that have? “We have the governor’s folks here on the floor all the time. And certainly, I think we got a feeling that we were more effective as a whole to wait for the full bargain. Many felt that it wasn’t completely ready. And so yes, that was conveyed: That we would rather hold back and move this all in together.”

The day the grand bargain fell apart, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly issued the following statement: "We appreciate the hard work of the Senate in trying to pass a bipartisan agreement that can become law," Kelly wrote in an email. "Some progress has been made, but more work is needed to achieve a good deal for taxpayers. We encourage senators to keep working toward a good deal for taxpayers."

As reported above, the governor has since repeated that message, while also denying he pulled votes off the grand bargain.

We emailed the administration in preparing this story, noting none of the Republican senators who spoke to us would substantiate the Democratic assertion that Rauner “threatened” members of his party. But we wondered how the administration squared Rauner’s denials with the Republican senators who say they talked to Rauner or one of his aides, and that Rauner “interceded,” “raised concerns” or “conveyed" that senators should not vote on what Rauner thought was not yet a good deal. “Why would the governor deny that?” we asked.

"Not sure how else to say this,” spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis wrote back. “The Governor has said repeatedly, including in his budget address, that more can be done to ensure a good deal for taxpayers. That does not mean he 'pulled votes' — and as you noted, every member you’ve talked to says there was no threat. Period. I would again suggest you reach out to the Senate democrats about where they got their information from.”

Brian Mackey covers state government for NPR Illinois. You can follow his reporting on Twitter and Facebook. A version of this story was first broadcast on Illinois Edition on March 21, 2017.

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