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Education, Pensions Addressed in Illinois Governor's Speech

Brian Mackey
Governor Bruce Rauner

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner used his State of the State address Wednesday to say he wants to bring competitive balance back to Illinois.

Rauner had an unenviable duty: to give a major address, before a joint session of the General Assembly, at a time the state has gone nearly eight months without a budget. It's a task no other Governor has had to face -- though Rauner's critics would argue it's self-inflicted.

The governor didn't address the budget situation directly, save for at the very end of his half-hour speech.

"We all know, all of us in this chamber, had a difficult year together in 2015. As we debated a budget with structural reform," he said.

Even as he spoke, protestors chanted in the capitol rotunda.

Though Rauner returned to previous themes such as weakening unions, the governor went out of his way to strike a more conciliatory tone with Democrats, who control the legislature. He spoke of a pending compromise with the Senate's top Democrat on pensions, and of "mutual respect."

Rauner introduced plans to redesign how the government contracts services and buys goods, to modernize technology and to reduce the prison population, and he announced that he's taken steps to move the state's economic development agency into a private model.


The governor also outlined a ten-point plan focused on education.

"The key to rising family incomes, more high-paying jobs and a better life for everyone in Illinois is to have a high-quality, fully integrated education system from cradle to career," he said. "From early education to K-12 public schools to outstanding community colleges and universities."

Many of those ideas are controversial. While he didn't get into details during the speech, mentions of "school choice" seem to indicate a push for vouchers and charter schools. Rauner also said he wants to give districts more flexibility in bargaining -- something that unions are against. Rauner also says he's willing to revisit how the state funds schools. 

But reforming Illinois schools wasn't a big emphasis of Rauner's first year in office.  

Democratic Senate President John Cullerton has said overhauling the way Illinois funds schools to make it more equitable is a top 2016 priority.


Rauner says lawmakers should try to fix the state's underfunded pension system by giving Illinois workers a choice on reduced benefits.  

He told lawmakers about a plan he's working on with Cullerton. It would give employees a choice between keeping cost-of-living increases in retirement and counting future raises when figuring retirement benefits.

But there's disagreement about whether the plan should include a provision that takes salary increases out of the collective bargaining process. Rauner wants that, but Cullerton does not. Both say they're willing to continue working to agree on a measure.  

Illinois has the worst-funded pension system of any U.S. state and is roughly $111 billion in debt.