Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has Gov. Bruce Rauner over a barrel — again.
The Republican governor is in a tough political spot this time because Mendoza, a Democrat, has targeted a state budgeting practice that existed long before Rauner took office. He's just continued it.
And, in an already tough election year, Rauner has few good options.
Mendoza's Truth in Hiring Act would ban "offshoring," a practice where executive staff salaries are stashed within state agency budgets, usually to keep the executive's office budget — in this case the Governor's Office — low, at least on paper.
Here's the short and dirty: Mendoza accuses Rauner of playing a shell game.
"He didn't deal with it, now I'm going to end it," Mendoza said this past week in a meeting with the Quad-City Times editorial board.
Rauner's staff budget lists 44 employees, costing $4.9 million. Mendoza says his staff actually consists of 102 bodies, costing $10.4 million, more than double in personnel and cost. Rauner's office doesn't dispute this claim. Instead, it rightly points out that the practice has gone on for decades under administrations both Democratic and Republican.
Pat Quinn did it. Rod Blagojevich did it, too.
Instead, Rauner's administration contends the practice is legit because all agencies fall under the executive branch. So, say, stashing an agriculture aide's salary within State Police wouldn't be a big deal. State legislatures — solely responsible for the purse strings — have reasoned otherwise.
Illinois is the only state that still allows the practice.
So, on its face, Mendoza's Truth in Hiring Act seems like a no-brainer. And it would be if, say, it was introduced a year from now.
But no governor wants to be the one who amends his draft budget and more than double its expenses. That's even more true when he's a fiscal conservative. Doing so is an admission that executive budgets are less than transparent, documents massaged to avoid accountability.
A failure to act on Rauner's part — he could make the change without legislation — would do exactly that.
Should Rauner wait for the General Assembly to pass it, and it's likely to, and then grab his veto pen, he risks another politically devastating override vote where disenchanted Republicans defect in what amounts to a no-confidence vote. This scenario is precisely what happened this past year when Mendoza's Debt Transparency Act was hammered passed Rauner by lawmakers.
Or, Rauner can just sign Truth in Hiring and, well, we've already gone over that for the most part. Under this scenario, an effective date beginning in the the 2019-20 budget cycle is the best for which he can hope.
No matter what, Truth in Hiring provides Rauner's Democratic opponent, JB Pritzker, even more ammo. There's no way around it, bad news for an incumbent already struggling in the polls.
Mendoza contends that placing Rauner within a political vice wasn't part of her calculus. The whole thing is a matter of good government. And pushing out the effective date a full budget cycle — where its first victim could feasibly be Gov. Pritzker — is evidence of her pure intentions, she said.
But Mendoza knows as well as I do, good government and good politics can, when done well, go hand-in-hand.
Truth in Hiring is pro-transparency legislation that empowers the General Assembly to better its oversight of agency spending. It also leaves an already wounded Rauner with few good options.