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Has Bruce Rauner lost it?

Crain's Chicago Business

Friday, July 14, 2017  |  Article  |  Greg Hinz

Rauner, Bruce

I heard the same question in so many words in at least a dozen conversations in the past week, every one of them with top Springfield Republicans: "What the @&*#! is Bruce Rauner up to?"

"Unrealistic," says one Capitol veteran. "He's mentally ill," snaps another. "It's a head-scratcher," opines a third. "His re-election chances will go to zero if this continues," says a fourth. "He sure has doubled down," suggests a fifth. "It's awful," says a sixth. "He's ideological at heart," explains a seventh, adding: "With these guys, he's found soul mates."

"These guys" are the newcomers in the governor's administration, almost all of them from the Illinois Policy Institute, a strongly opinionated libertarian think tank that has been given control of at least the public aspects of Rauner's administration in recent days and in some ways maybe the governor himself. And the first big question they'll get to weigh in on is whether public schools in Chicago and statewide will open and run normally in coming weeks or be forced to shut down in a spate of nastiness that would make the just-ended budget impasse look like patty-cake.

Just a week ago, I wrote that, in losing the override battle over a tax hike and new spending to Democrats, Rauner might have improved his re-election prospects. The idea was that the GOP incumbent would get the benefit of higher state revenue he could turn around and spend while blaming Democrats for taking it away from you by raising taxes over his veto. That was a nice, easy narrative to run by voters, and Rauner's political team knew it. They were jumping up and down with glee that he had not been forced to live with the consequences of his veto.

But apparently Team Rauner forgot to share the Champagne with the boss. Instead of putting the budget chaos behind him and just ripping House Speaker Michael Madigan's tax hike, an apparently angry governor created new chaos by taking an ax to his own government.

Pushed out, some quietly but others with the subtlety of a kick from an iron-toed boot, were his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and entire communications staff save one, who probably would be well-advised to get her resume out there fast. Brought in were the spokeswoman for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a passel of ideologues from the policy institute, which last month was ridiculing Rauner for daring to hint that he might go along with a needed income tax hike if Democrats gave him the term limits, property tax freeze, anti-union moves and other structural changes he's been demanding for three years.

I won't dwell on the fact that some of these newly unemployed folks are good, loyal Republicans who deserved to be treated better and who kept their mouths shut even as Rauner internally berated them for not doing a better job selling his unsellable agenda. Kind of like Donald Trump and Sean Spicer, no?

Nor will I dwell on the fact that Rauner hasn't seemed to figure out yet that you can't act like Walker and force through a bunch of anti-union changes unless your legislature is majority Republican, like Wisconsin's. Or that the institute's budget plan—throw 600,000 people off Medicaid, strip cities and school districts of billions of dollars of state aid, effectively abolish collective bargaining in the public sector, and require two-thirds approval for the "sacred act" of raising taxes—was about as realistic as Rauner being named AFL-CIO man of the year.

Instead, I'll stick to the politically obvious point: If you've somehow put yourself back in the game for re-election, why invite chaos to return and lower your odds again?

Which leads to schools. The funding plan now on Rauner's desk rewrites an aid formula that desperately needed updating while giving city schools money they need and generally deserve. Is it perfect? No. Is it a heck of a lot better than a monthlong stalemate that would do to grade and high schools what the just-ended budget impasse did to higher education? You betcha.

We'll see if the governor can figure that out. Or whether his blow-it-up, go-for-broke team is running the show.