Rauner previews 1st-year priorities: Cut property taxes, Medicaid spending, state payroll

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CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday began laying out priorities for his first year in office, saying property taxes and workers' compensation costs are too high, Medicaid spending is unsustainable and state workers' salaries and benefits are too generous.

In a speech he said was a preview of the State of the State address he'll give next month, the Winnetka Republican said Illinois is in "massive deterioration mode."

He said he will propose a number of reforms to turn the state around, and indicated they would involve making Illinois more attractive to businesses while slashing spending on everything from health insurance for the poor to public-worker pensions and the state's payroll.

"This is the critical lesson that we're seeing: We're on an unsustainable path," Rauner told students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "We need fundamental structural change and raising taxes alone ... isn't going to fix the problem, and in a lot of ways it's going to make it worse."

While he didn't outline specific proposals, many of Rauner's ideas are likely to draw heavy opposition from majority Democrats and even some fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, as well as public-employee labor unions.

He said higher-than-average costs of workers' compensation and unemployment insurance are driving businesses out of the state, property taxes are "brutally high" and "shenanigans" in the public-employee pension system have made Illinois' multibillion-dollar pension debt "a time bomb for taxpayers."

Rauner said public employees' average salaries are among the highest of any state in the U.S. and the state's share of health care premiums is too high.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees Council 31, said Rauner was using numbers that are inaccurate and in some cases outdated. He said public union employees are not the cause of the state's challenges.

AFSCME, the state's largest public-employee union, is set to begin negotiations with Rauner's administration on a new contract.

"The type of misleading statement and false facts we see today are not an encouraging first step you want to see from someone who is truly trying to work together for the common good," Lindall said.

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, said the Chicago Democrat wants to see how Rauner's statements translate into legislative policy and a proposed budget. Rauner is scheduled to deliver his budget address on Feb. 18, two weeks after his State of the State.

But Cullerton clearly wasn't pleased after Rauner ripped legislators in his inaugural speech for leading Illinois into a budget disaster, saying afterward that many of the new governor's comments were inaccurate and that he "is going to have to learn about state government."

Rauner on Thursday also named new members of what he's calling his "Turnaround Team" — people he said have experience in budgeting and management. They include former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who will serve as senior adviser.

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