CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner defended paying his top staff members significantly more than his predecessor, explaining Friday that he will pay what is necessary for talent.
The Republican has blasted Illinois' spending and state worker salaries as excessive. However, a review by The Associated Press found annual salaries of ten top employees in his administration far exceed those of comparable aides to former Gov. Pat Quinn by roughly $380,000 — or 36 percent. The increases ranged from 11 percent to 94 percent.
"The people we're bringing into our administration, most of them are taking significant cuts compared to what they were making on the outside," Rauner said ahead of the groundbreaking of a charter school in Chicago. "I pay what it needs to for the talent that we've got."
Rauner vowed spending out of the governor's office would be lower under his administration than Quinn's. He didn't offer further details, and his office didn't respond to repeated questions on the issue.
It's still too early to compare spending between the two administrations. Quinn's office employed 96 people last year with a total payroll of $4.5 million. Not all of Rauner's new hires have been paid yet, and some Quinn employees were still being paid in January. The Illinois comptroller's website began posting the paychecks of workers in Rauner's administration this week. The AP verified the amounts against state records of the staffers' monthly salaries.
Among those receiving more is Rauner's deputy governor, Olin "Trey" Childress III, a former chief operating officer for the state of Georgia. He's earning $198,000 annually, a 24 percent increase over Quinn's deputy governor's $150,000 salary. Rauner's chief of staff and former deputy campaign manager Mike Zolnierowicz will receive $180,000 yearly, a 38 percent increase over his predecessor's salary under Quinn. Zolnierowicz is a former deputy chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.
Aaron Winters, Rauner's deputy chief of staff for policy, is being paid $138,000, 53 percent more than his predecessor in Quinn's office, who was paid $90,000.
And Rauner's longtime executive assistant, Holly Griff, is earning an annual salary of $135,000. That's 94 percent more than the salary of a Quinn aide who performed similar duties and sometimes handled scheduling for the entire administration.
Rauner stressed a theme of "shared sacrifice" during his January inaugural address. He has issued an executive order halting all "non-essential spending" and announced he'll be taking a $1 yearly salary. Quinn earned $179,400 last year. He also suggested last week at a presentation in Chicago that high state salaries had served to increase Illinois' unpaid debt.
On Friday, he criticized "government insiders" as making too much.
"The people who've been into cronyism and conflicts of interest that have been engaged in insider state government for years — with the insiders giving taxpayer-funded dues to politicians to get them elected," he said. "The pay for those folks in many cases is dramatically higher than for the same job out where the taxpayers are. That's wrong."
Political experts said the move could leave Rauner open to criticisms of hypocrisy.
"He's leaving himself vulnerable in that way," said Christopher Mooney, director of the University of Illinois' Institute for Government and Public Affairs.
Despite the optics, lawmakers said they'd wait and see what other changes Rauner would make with staffing and other budget decisions. His budget address is Feb. 18.
"I'm not going to criticize his bringing in new people and paying them," said Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat. "I don't know how it's organized, if he's reorganizing the governor's office, laying other people off. We'll wait and see what his overall budget is and how it's balanced.... We'll look at those salaries and see how they fit into the big picture."
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