2017 year in review
With the New Year about a week away, it's time to reflect on the rough-and-tumble time that was 2017 and project forward into the uncertainty of 2018. From struggles in the state General Assembly over the budget and sexual harassment, to Gov. Bruce Rauner's swings to the left to Lisa Madigan's unexplained decision to not seek another term as Illinois attorney general and other news items that made for an interesting year, here's our 2017 in review.
1. Budget impasse, fail of Grand Bargain, fiscal dysfunction, special session and the ensuing tax hike
The year 2017 dawned with no budget agreement in the Illinois General Assembly and the state continuing to struggle with billions in pension shortfalls and other problems while businesses clearly were avoiding the state. The so-called Grand Bargain, which was announced early in the year by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and then Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), was criticized for being short on reform and long on taxes. It failed entirely by the end of March. Rauner's veto of a $36 billion spending plan triggered a showdown that ended in a veto override. Since then, Illinois' credit rating has been further downgraded, its vendor debt remains at more than $9 billion, and the residents' tax load and other problems are driving continued out-migration as Illinoisans seek better conditions and opportunities elsewhere.
2. Rauner loses support over abortion flip flop and sanctuary state bill; at the end of year, the governor announces he is "not in charge" of state
Rauner seems to have spent much of 2017 finding new and novel ways to alienate conservatives, particularly with his decisions to sign controversial abortion and sanctuary state legislation. While some Republicans, such as attorney general hopeful Erika Harold and state Party Chairman Tim Schneider (R-Bartlett), talked about unity within the GOP despite Rauner's embrace of left-leaning politics, others publicly withdrew their support. State Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) called Rauner's decision to sign the sanctuary state bill "tragic" and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who called herself "a pro-life Republican," opposed the measure. The Thomas More Society filed suit to block the abortion legislation while the president of the nonprofit advocacy group Catholic Vote, Brian Burch, called for Rauner to resign. Earlier this month, Rauner made his "not in charge" comment during a press conference while continuing to blame House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) for the state's many problems.
3. Rauner overhauls staff after losing tax hike vote; new staff steps down within 30 days in face of dysfunction
Rauner had difficulties keeping his staff together in 2017, losing or firing 21 staffers following a contentious budget plan and an unpopular tax hike. In October, Chief of Staff Kristina Rasmussen resigned following the governor's signing of abortion legislation. Rasmussen had replaced previous Chief of Staff Richard Goldberg, who had been fired by the governor in July.
4. Ives challenging Rauner in face of loss of support, ineffective leadership; Democratic gubernatorial candidates step in
Rauner's political struggle during 2017 ultimately opened the door for a 2018 gubernatorial bid by Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton). Though Rauner appears to be largely ignoring Ives' run, she is making her case as a fiscal conservative against legislation disguised as a property tax freeze and vowing to "stand up to machine politics" in advance of the Republican primary in March. With praise from the conservative magazine National Review and the founder of Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, Ives has said she recognizes that voters want an alternative to re-electing Rauner. Whoever gets the GOP nod will face a strong candidate from the Democrats, where billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker and Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy are among the candidates seeking that party’s nomination.
5. Jim Durkin faces criticism from Republicans
House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) drew criticism this year after his law firm, Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, was alleged to have helped Illinois municipal governments and state agencies accrue more than a quarter of a billion dollars in public debt. Durkin also drew fire for hiring a former Rauner aide, a hiring with the potential to cause some conflict of interest problems for WTTW because the former aide reportedly lives with the station's statehouse reporter. Earlier this month, Durkin's attorney threatened litigation against Local Government Information Services, which owns this publication, and issued two cease and desist letters following reporters' questions about the legislator.
6. Illinois sees an exodus of lawmakers as 30 legislators step down or announce they will not seek re-election
Turmoil in Springfield also has led to lawmakers deciding to hang it up entirely or not seek re-election. Of the 15 Republicans in the House who supported the income tax hike in the state's budget passed last summer, seven are not seeking re-election. Since Rauner's first day in office in January 2015, at least 43 of 118 seats in the House and at least 14 of 59 seats in the Senate have changed or are expected to by the 2018 General Election. That amounts to 36 percent turnover in the House and almost 25 percent in the Senate, or a third of the entire state legislature.
7. Attorney General Lisa Madigan will not run for re-election; Erika Harold's star rises in AG race
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided in September, without explanation, that she would not seek another term, a decision that opened up an opportunity for former Miss America turned Harvard Law School graduate Erika Harold. In the field of attorney general candidates, which includes former Gov. Pat Quinn, Harold remains the only Republican in the race.
8. Sexual harassment
Illinois has not been immune to the sexual harassment controversy that bloomed worldwide after allegations against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein began to surface in October. Sexual harassment allegations that went public against Illinois state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) prompted Springfield lawmakers into uncharacteristically swift action. A long-vacant special legislative inspector general office was hurriedly filled; and, less than three weeks after the allegations against Silverstein, Rauner signed two sexual harassment bills, despite saying one was very flawed but had to be signed.
9. AFSCME authorizes strike, later faces Supreme Court challenge over mandatory union fees; right-to-work zones challenged by attempt to criminalize local government actions; Rep. Reggie Phillips worksite vandalized
In February, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Illinois' largest public employees union, voted to authorize a strike. In April, state Rep. Reggie Phillips (R-Charleston) offered a reward for information leading to the capture of vandals who attacked one of his worksites that had recently been targeted by union member protests. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Janus v. AFSCME over forced union dues payments. In November, the state House failed to override Rauner's veto of Senate Bill 1905, which would have barred creation of local right-to-work zones.
10. Voter fraud alleged
In February, an analysis by Local Government Information Services, contradicted assertions that voter fraud is relatively rare. The analysis found almost 50,000 duplicate voter registration records for Illinoisans registered multiple times.
11. Frank Mautino's continued struggles
Illinois' embattled Auditor General Frank Mautino proved himself a political survivor in 2017 despite continued questions over the use of campaign contributions before he was appointed to office in October 2015. Mautino endured calls for his resignation before and after he pleaded the Fifth in June to avoid incriminating himself during an Illinois State Board of Elections investigation. As of the end of November, he had not paid a $5,000 fine levied by the State Board of Elections in May against his now-defunct state House campaign committee and he still faces an Edgar County Watchdogs Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.
12. School bill compromise
This year saw passage of the school bill compromise, Senate Bill 1947, signed into law by Rauner on Aug. 31, under which Illinois schools will receive state funding payments through an evidence-based model. The school bill compromise, praised by the state GOP, had a rocky path to passage that included a Senate override of the governor's amendatory veto of the K-12 funding bill, but an 11th-hour breakthrough ultimately secured legislation with enough votes to pass.