The Illinois Constitution requires Gov. Bruce Rauner to draw up a budget plan each year that is balanced. But a wide range of fiscal experts agree he didn’t do it in 2015 after taking office. He didn’t do it in 2016. He didn’t do it last year either, even though he claimed otherwise.
Indeed, the budget Rauner proposed last year was so clearly billions of dollars out of whack that, when he presented it to the General Assembly last March, PolitiFact Illinois handed the governor the lowest possible Pants on Fire! credibility rating for contending it was in balance.
So we were puzzled when Rauner on Monday declared to the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board: "I have introduced balanced budgets every year that I’ve been governor."
Rauner followed that on Wednesday during his annual State of the State speech to lawmakers in Springfield with a declaration that unintentionally drew a boisterous round of sarcastic cackling from Democrats in the chamber.
"I will submit a balanced budget proposal next month," Rauner said, pausing a couple of beats before adding, "Again."
Rauner’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year is still under wraps, so it’s too early to judge whether available revenue will align with expenditures as required by law. But his persistence in arguing that his past budgets were all balanced, despite broad and convincing evidence to the contrary, inspired us to take another look.
Appearing at a mini-debate before the Tribune’s editorial board, Rauner was pressed about his budgeting by his Republican primary challenger, state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton. The incumbent protested that he’d proposed balanced budgets every year.
That prompted us to ask the governor’s office if anything had changed in the last year since PolitiFact deemed his claim absurd.
A spokesperson emailed back:
"Year after year, Governor Rauner has introduced balanced budgets, along with the reforms needed to save taxpayer dollars and put Illinois back on a firm fiscal footing and, year after year, he has been met with resistance from those more comfortable with the status quo. The Governor will continue to push for balanced budgets, pension reform, cutting regulatory red tape, reforms to make our jobs climate competitive, and spending reductions so that Illinois can grow again."
In short, Rauner’s office avoided a direct answer to the question we posed. The statement does, however, further a factually challenged narrative that the governor often repeats.
There’s history here. Critics say Rauner’s balanced budget boast which earned him a Pants on Fire! in 2017 was no anomaly.
"He has never introduced a balanced budget," said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank partly funded by labor unions. "What he has put out there doesn’t even rise to smoke and mirrors."
Martire said the same air of unreality applies to Rauner’s latest statements on the budget. "Maybe in a place where they have unicorns?" Martire said.
Last year, in panning Rauner’s claim about his 2017 budget, PolitiFact pointed to some stark numbers that didn’t add up. "Democratic opponents have suggested Rauner’s plan is $4.6 billion to $7 billion out of balance," PolitiFact wrote then.
Much of that might have been dismissed as the product of partisan sniping, except for one suspect entry in Rauner’s budget in which he penciled in $4.57 billion in savings for what was described in vague terms as "working together on a grand bargain."
The "bargain" in question depended on lawmakers hammering out a broad compromise on a range of spending and ancillary issues including contentious topics like workers’ compensation and tax reform. Rauner ultimately sank the package by withholding support even though he factored its approval into his budget calculations.
While the "grand bargain" itself never materialized, attempts at reaching it evolved into a bipartisan effort in the Legislature to break an historic budget stalemate that lasted a total of two years. Last summer, a handful of Republicans crossed the aisle to help override Rauner’s veto of a spending plan authored by Democrats.
After PolitiFact bestowed a Pants on Fire! on Rauner’s earlier budget claim, new information came to light that only served to underscore the rating.
In the budget blueprint he proposed last year, Rauner called for creation of a 401(k) style savings plan for newly hired public school teachers and public workers. He estimated that would slice $500 million in savings off the state’s pension costs for fiscal 2018, which began last July 1.
Despite the budgetary feuding, the Democratic budget included the 401(k) plan Rauner had asked for.
Even so, an investigation by the Better Government Association later raised doubts that any savings from the new retirement program would materialize before 2019 at the earliest.
Ironically, Rauner in vetoing the Democrats’ budget faulted them for counting on the same $500 million in savings that he had included in his own spending plan months earlier.
Head spinners like that have provided ample fodder for those in Springfield who question Rauner’s credibility when it comes to budget matters.
Prominent among the critics is Democratic state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who issued this statement following the governor’s State of the State address:
"We just heard Governor Rauner's re-election speech. Now he has 14 days to deliver a balanced budget that doesn’t involve pixie dust and magic beans."
Rauner last year earned PolitiFact’s Pants on Fire! rating for his claim that a state budget he proposed was balanced. Indeed, fiscal experts say Rauner has never proposed a balanced budget as required under the state Constitution since taking office in 2015.
All facts to the contrary, Rauner repeated a similar claim this week during an appearance at the Chicago Tribune. "I have introduced balanced budgets every year that I’ve been governor," Rauner said.
Aides to the governor filibustered when we asked them to back up his latest statement.
A year ago, PolitiFact called Rauner out on his balanced budget claim. His most recent comment is equally outrageous. Once again, we rate it Pants on Fire!