By CARL GREEN
Springfield, IL – It’s not uncommon these days to hear union activists or Democrats criticizing Governor Bruce Rauner. After all, he is trying to singlehandedly throw both groups out of work.
It’s less frequent for prominent Republicans to join the fight, like, perhaps, two well-respected two-term governors – Jim Edgar and his predecessor, James Thompson.
So it was widely noted when the daily newspaper in Springfield, the State Journal-Register, published an interview with Edgar last month in which he said Rauner needs to quit holding the state’s budget hostage.
“State government’s probably in the worst state it’s been in the 47 years that I’ve been around it,” Edgar said in the extensive interview with Bernard Schoenburg, the newspaper’s political writer.
“You’ve got dozens and dozens of programs that aren’t being funded, agencies that are having trouble doing their mission, and I just think it’s very unfortunate,” Edgar added.
Edgar was governor from 1991 to 1999 after serving as state representative and secretary of state. He was known for moderate politics and making government work more efficiently.
THOMPSON WEIGHS IN
Edgar’s interview was the first blast. The next came a few days later when Thompson gave a brief interview to political reporter Kerry Lester of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
“This is the worst position the state of Illinois has ever been in,” said Thompson, who was governor from 1977 to 1991, the longest tenure of any Illinois governor. The Daily Herald credited Thompson with largely “establishing the safety net of social services the state currently has in place.”
Thompson said the governor must be willing to negotiate with the legislature on the budget – unlike Rauner.
“I agree that it’s going to take some difficult negotiations to solve this,” Thompson said. “That’s the responsibility of the governor and the legislature. They will have to do their jobs.”
Ever a pragmatist, Thompson noted that the current stall only makes the state’s financial situation worse.
“The problem is that every day the budget is delayed, the state gets deeper in debt. When there is a final agreement, more money will have to go to lessening the debt than goes to services.”
WHO IS SUFFERING?
Rauner has refused to deal with the Legislature on the budget, instead insisting that labor measures such as workers compensation, prevailing wage and public workers’ organizing rights be rolled back first.
The elderly, the disabled and the children, all of whom rely on parts of the budget that are going unfunded, are doing the suffering.
Edgar seems to be aware of this.
“We need a budget,” he told the interviewer. “These other issues, they’re important – some of them I think more important than others – but you don’t hold the budget hostage to get those.
“It has been very destabilizing for state government. I think a lot of people have suffered.”
Edgar, 69, is now a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, and he lives in Springfield. Thompson, 79, retired this year as chairman of the Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago.
Rauner claims to be making the state more attractive to business, but Edgar said he has had the opposite effect.
“An unstable state government – and that’s what we have right now, very unstable – is a detriment to economic growth,” he said. “I mean, folks aren’t going to come to this state and make an investment if they think state government’s dysfunctional.”
Said Thompson: “Running the government is not like running a business.”
Edgar is especially concerned about Rauner’s effect on the state’s universities.
“One of the strengths this state’s had for years is a great higher education system,” he said. “I think that is in jeopardy now.”
Edgar, as a graduate of Eastern Illinois University in his hometown of Charleston, is a prominent product of that system. But that school may have to shut down during the spring semester without support from the state. Northern Illinois University, too, is considering closing or canceling need-based scholarships.
Finally, Edgar noted the futility of Rauner closing the Illinois State Museum system as of Oct. 1 while remaining contractually bound to pay its employees.
“He closed the state museum, but we’re still paying for people to work at the museum. At the same time, we’re not paying for domestic abuse shelters. We’re not paying for homeless shelters. I mean, there are a lot of things that really need money. People really need help,” Edgar said.
“It’s a complete mess-up, what’s going on, and I think we need to end it.”
ILLINOIS TEACHERS SPEAK OUT
The Illinois Federation of Teachers reported on Edgar’s interview on its website and added a comment from Comptroller Leslie Munger, a Rauner appointee, that sounded like she understood what Edgar was saying.
“I don’t think it helps to pit people against one another, to be completely honest,” she said. “I believe we need to be all working together to solve the problems in Illinois.”
In the interview, Edgar was asked to compare Rauner to another former governor, the imprisoned Democrat Rod Blagojevich. Edgar suggested that Blagojevich was no better as governor but may have been less damaging.
“At least Blagojevich was off doing his crazy things and state government kind of continued to move along,” he said. “I don’t think state government’s moving along right now. I just think too many things are at a standstill.”
(The full Jim Edgar story can be seen at the State Journal Register website, s-jr.com. The IFT report is at ift-aft.com. The James Thompson story is at dailyherald.com.)