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Rauner again claims no company would take car plant

State Journal Register

Thursday, May 17, 2018  |  Column  |  Bernard Schoenburg

Rauner, Bruce

Gov. BRUCE RAUNER again falsely said in an appearance in Chicago last week that no auto company would take over the former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, omitting the fact that an electric vehicle manufacturer bought it in 2017 in a deal his own administration touted.

Rauner spoke last week in Chicago at the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity. The format was a half-hour interview of Rauner by CHARLES THOMAS, who in early 2017 retired from ABC7 news in Chicago after 25 years (getting a surprise visit that day from Rauner, who proclaimed the occasion Charles Thomas Day in the state).

At the Kemp event, Rauner — trying to bolster his argument that Illinois is hostile to business — discussed the Mitsubishi plant, which closed in 2016 after being opened in 1988.

Rauner agreed with Thomas, who is African-American, that Illinois has one of the highest unemployment rates among black people.

“And I visited with black families in Bloomington, where the breadwinner in the family, the mother or the father, was laid off when we lost our Mitsubishi car factory,” Rauner said. “We tried to get another ... car manufacturer to take over the plant. No one would come in. No one would even take the plant if we gave it to them, because our regulations are so hostile to business and our taxes are so high.”

Rauner said he was told by the family that “we appreciate all your hard work,” but “we’re gonna move to Texas.”

However, an electric vehicle manufacturer called Rivian Automotive completed purchase of the plant in early 2017, and Rauner himself visited the facility on March 7, 2017.

“Governor Celebrates Rivian Automotive Opening,” his office’s news release said that day.

And his own re-election website, brucerauner.com, touts the coming of the company on a page headlined “21st Century Jobs.”

“We brought Rivian Automotive to Normal, where 1,500 jobs will be created,” the site states.

His Chicago remarks were similar to a story — minus the race of the United Auto Workers member involved — that Rauner told talk-show host TOM MILLER in December on Carterville-based WJPF, a station which bills itself as “the voice of southern Illinois.”

“I can’t give this plant away,” Rauner said then, adding, “No auto company wants to invest in Illinois because of (House Speaker MICHAEL) MADIGAN’s power, because of regulations and taxes.”

When I asked the governor’s office in December why he was talking as if Rivian did not exist, Rauner spokeswoman PATTY SCHUH said Rauner was “clearly discussing a story from the time when the plant closed.”

This week, after a tourism event at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, I asked Rauner why he again, last week, talked about the Mitsubishi plant without mentioning Rivian. After all, the company reached agreement in December 2016 with Rauner’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to get up to $49 million in tax credits over 15 years if goals are met. Those goals include creation of 1,000 new full-time jobs by the end of 2024. And The Pantagraph of Bloomington-Normal reported last month that the company had already hired about 40 people. It plans to reveal its first vehicles this year, a five-passenger pickup truck coming to market in 2020 and a seven-passenger sport utility vehicle, the newspaper reported.

“There’s nothing false about it,” Rauner said of his statements last week. “They sort of were pretty much given the plant.”

I pointed out that he said last week that no company would even take the plant for free.

Rauner laughed and said, “There’s nothing false about it. ... We are not competitive on our regulations and our taxes.”

“That plant should have well over 1,000 people today,” he said. “We had to cut a deal on the hope, on a gamble, that it might work out, and it’s the best we could do. And hopefully, that will become successful someday.”

The plant sold to Rivian for at least $2 million, according to The Pantagraph.

RACHEL BOLD, another Rauner spokeswoman, said this week that Rivian “purchased the plant at auction and so far we’ve seen about 50 jobs materialize. While we’re grateful to have them there, it’s not the same as having a fully functional plant.” She also said she hopes the state’s tax credit will see the company “grow and fully utilize the space, ultimately employing 1,000 or more. ..... We believe Rivian is on track to bring the plant up to full working order. We continue to push for common sense policies to make Illinois competitive and companies like Rivian successful.”

Questionable

During the Kemp event last week, Rauner once again told a version of a story he has repeated for years without ever identifying an agency where it occurred. He again talked of visiting state offices early in his tenure and finding a lack of needed technology.

“In many of the departments, there’s not even computers,” he said of that early time in his administration. “They’re still doing things with paper and pen, things that could be digitized and transformed.”

He did say that his administration has been “modernizing our computer systems.”

Despite he and his office being asked multiple times, Rauner has never revealed what office he was talking about.

“I did not make it up,” he said in March of the recurring story, adding he remembered the agency and he would be “talking about that in the future.”

Without naming that agency, Bold said this week that Rauner’s “efforts at improving our state’s IT (information technology) systems go far beyond any single agency. Thanks to our modernization efforts we are confident we’re making a difference and saving taxpayers money.”

Rauner also said at the Kemp event that he had “proposed a balanced budget every year.” PolitiFact Illinois in February found that a similar claim made by Rauner at the time deserved the watchdog’s most clearly false rating: “pants on fire.”

“Year after year, he has been met with resistance in the legislature,” Bold said of Rauner’s budget battles. But that answer doesn’t address what PolitiFact criticized: the budgets as introduced by the governor.

Contact Bernard Schoenburg: bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.