Amid a historic impasse and financial crisis in state government, the early campaign for Illinois governor has quickly shifted to the always-volatile issue of abortion rights following Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's vow to veto a bill aimed at keeping the procedure legal while expanding taxpayer-subsidized coverage for it.
Rauner's decision helps him shore up support from conservative Republicans
in a legislature that has seen the number of socially moderate GOP lawmakers dwindle, as well as from groups opposed to abortion rights. Cardinal Blase Cupich
on Wednesday thanked Rauner for his "principled stand" and said he would "pray that this divisive issue will be put behind us" amid Illinois' "many difficult challenges."
But the governor is drawing criticism from potential 2018 Democratic challengers as well as abortion-rights advocates following a 2014 contest in which Rauner actively campaigned as a supporter of reproductive rights and proclaimed he had "no social agenda." Indeed, Rauner's abortion bill veto pledge comes as he and wife, Diana, are listed as $50,000 sponsors of a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood of Illinois next week.
The abortion issue has taken on added importance with the seating of a full U.S. Supreme Court after President Donald Trump's nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was admitted to the bench this month. Abortion-rights advocates say the appointment gives new energy to efforts to overturn the court's landmark 1973 ruling affirming a woman's right to undergo the procedure.
Trump already has signed legislation rolling back a rule that protected some federal funds going to Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide legal abortions. Now states can effectively block the pass-through of federal family planning grant dollars to groups that also provide abortion services.
"The uncertainty of reproductive health care policies in Washington, D.C., means that we must ensure there are protections in place at the state level," Susan Musich, Planned Parenthood of Illinois board chair, said in a statement. "Gov. Rauner needs to stand with all Illinois women, not just some!"
At issue in the Capitol is legislation pending in the House that would remove a decades-old provision in Illinois law that supporters say would make abortion illegal in the state if the Supreme Court reverses its Roe v. Wade ruling.
The measure also would remove restrictions on the use of taxpayer-subsidized state funding for elective abortions for poor women under Medicaid and provide abortion coverage to state workers under the group insurance program.
Rauner's office and campaign said the governor supports current law, which allows Medicaid coverage for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and for health and life of the mother. Abortion-rights opponents have often criticized coverage for the "health" of the mother, contending it provides too much leeway to provide for elective abortions.
"Gov. Rauner is committed to protecting women's reproductive rights under current Illinois law. However, recognizing the sharp divisions of opinion of taxpayer funding of abortion, he does not support" the pending legislation, spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said.
Beyond the bill are underlying questions of politics — from the governor's political positioning for re-election to a revival of hard feelings from the last campaign that saw Rauner win in part by portraying himself an abortion-rights supporter against then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
On Wednesday, the abortion-rights advocacy political action committee Personal PAC released an April 2014 questionnaire from then-Republican nominee Rauner in which he pledged to support a law to lift restrictions on Medicaid- and state employee insurance-covered abortions as well as legislation to lift the trigger that would make abortions illegal in Illinois if the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
"I fundamentally believe that abortion should be a woman's private decision, hopefully in consultation with her loved ones and her faith community, and that decision should not be impeded by government," Rauner wrote in reply to Personal PAC's questionnaire.
"This principle should apply to all women, regardless of income level or location of residency. As governor, I will work to ensure equal access to contraception and abortion services. It is my hope that by increasing access to reproductive health services we can reduce the incidence of abortions in Illinois, while ensuring that women who do make this decision receive services in a timely manner," he wrote.
Rauner added: "My highest priority in this area will be to ensure effective administration of the laws regarding access to contraception and provide that access regardless of income. I dislike the Illinois law that restricts abortion coverage under the state Medicaid plan and state employees' health insurance because I believe it unfairly restricts access based on income. I would support a legislative effort to reverse that law."
Additionally, Rauner checked "yes" boxes on questions about whether he would sign bills repealing the so-called trigger law as well as legislation about lifting Medicaid and state-employee insurance restrictions.
Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Personal PAC, said the group's candidate questionnaires usually are kept private. But Cosgrove said Rauner had "betrayed" the group's trust and it decided to release the survey.
"(Rauner) lied to the voters. He lied to friends. He lied to colleagues about his position on reproductive rights," he said.
"In politics and life, you are only as good as your word — especially when that word is followed by a signature," he said. Rauner's pledge to veto the pending House bill "defrauds every voter who took him at his word and mistakenly believed him to be an honest man."
Cosgrove said Diana Rauner helped broker a post-primary 2014 meeting with Personal PAC's top officials prior to receiving the questionnaire aimed at touting Bruce Rauner's abortion-rights advocacy. She has contributed $26,500 to the group since 2008, campaign records show.
Diana Rauner also was among abortion advocates who paid for a full-page, open-letter advertisement in the Chicago Tribune in October 2014 to promote Bruce Rauner's "clear consistent position" on reproductive rights. It quoted the future governor from a GOP primary debate in which he said, "It's a decision that should be made by a woman with her physician, her family or minister, not by government."
The ad noted the "only" difference between the Republican candidate and Quinn was Rauner's support for parental notification if a minor sought to have an abortion.
That difference between Rauner and Quinn was enough for Personal PAC to back the Democrat, with a political action committee and independent expenditure PAC spending nearly $3.8 million in the 2014 election cycle. Back then, Diana Rauner lashed out at Personal PAC's attacks on her husband and noted Cosgrove at the time was a paid Quinn appointee to the state's Human Rights Commission.
Rauner's decision on the House bill before it even came up for a vote followed a meeting with about 20 conservative Republicans who urged him to take a stand on the legislation, an event first reported by Politico Illinois.
The governor's office issued Rauner's veto pledge on Good Friday afternoon. It came after state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, publicly urged the governor to come out against the bill to try to impede its passage.
I said that the governor should take a public position on this (because) it's more likely it will be defeated if he takes a public stand," said McSweeney, who was not part of the group that met with Rauner.
"My view is that he just did the right thing," McSweeney said. "There is broad opposition to the taxpayer funding of abortions. There is a fiscal impact to the state. Now is not the time for expanding state funding for abortions" when Illinois does not have a budget.
Emily Troscinski, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, applauded Rauner's opposing a bill "that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars by providing free abortions for any reason" to state workers and those on Medicaid.
Rauner's state Department of Human Services now estimates the measure would cost $1.8 million in state funds. But when a similar measure — minus the Supreme Court language — was introduced a couple of years ago, the department said the bill would have "no fiscal impact."
Abortion opponents also say there is no need to address a potential Supreme Court reversal on abortion rights, contending that there would be no statute explicitly making the procedure a criminal act. They cite a 1989 study by the General Assembly's Legislative Research Unit that said it would take a new law to outlaw abortion in the state.
It's unclear when the House will vote, but it could be a close tally, with some socially conservative Downstate Democrats expected to oppose the bill. Some Republicans said privately that Democrats may hold off on a vote until next month to see if Rauner suffers political damage. The Democrats' larger margin in the Senate makes passage easier there.
Rauner's veto promise helps consolidate his support among Republican lawmakers amid questions about what successes they can point to as the budget impasse drags on and whether rank-and-file discontent might lead to a primary challenge against him next year.
The governor has options should the bill reach his desk. He could issue a total veto. He also could rewrite the measure to remove the expanded taxpayer-funded abortion language while approving the portion that would explicitly make abortion legal in Illinois regardless of a Supreme Court decision.
That could let Rauner claim he is a supporter of abortion rights, potentially appealing to suburbs where socially moderate Republican women are a major voting bloc. By vetoing the taxpayer-subsidized abortion language, Rauner also could appeal to more conservative voters.
Regardless, Rauner's chief political nemesis, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, historically does not consider a governor's amendatory vetoes, which would effectively kill the legislation.
Still, any type of Rauner veto would force the governor into potentially unfriendly political territory by having to parse his views on the politically difficult issues of abortion and reproductive rights.
His office already is noting that Rauner has signed into law legislation mandating private insurance coverage for birth control and another bill requiring health care workers who do not provide abortion services to refer a patient to a provider who does.