FOIA’d emails show state staffers moved to ‘shore up’ opposition to controversial abortion-rights bill to keep it off governor’s desk
Gov. Bruce Rauner and his wife, Diana, sing the national anthem at an event. (U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Lealan Buchrer)
By Ted Cox
Staffers for Gov. Rauner lobbied behind the scenes to quash a controversial abortion-rights bill last year in an attempt to keep it off his desk and avoid a politically fraught decision on whether to sign it, according to state emails obtained by One Illinois.
House Bill 40 expanded Medicaid and the state’s employee health insurance to cover abortions, while removing “trigger language” that threatened to make abortion illegal in Illinois if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Rauner backed the bill unequivocally as a candidate, threatened to veto it as governor, and eventually signed it in any case in September 2017 in a move that splintered the Illinois Republican Party.
“He’s just so flip-floppy,” said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz of Chicago, lead sponsor of the bill, who called Rauner “duplicitous on this issue.”
The emails, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request with the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services, show state staffers planning to “shore up” opposition among 13 Democratic representatives, most of whom they considered “ours” on the issue.
Emails also find first lady Diana Rauner joining efforts to organize responses before and after the governor signed HB40 into law last September. She also suggests that DHFS Director Felicia Norwood was not informed of the governor’s decision to sign the controversial bill until moments before a news conference on the signing, and that Norwood was also instructed to withhold information on the bill’s ultimate cost when it was still in play in the General Assembly.
“This is who we need to shore up on HB40,” Donovan Griffith, Rauner’s senior House liaison, writes in an email Feb. 9, 2017, to Director of Governmental Affairs Wendy Butler and DHFS Chief of Staff Shawn McGrady. What follows is a list of 13 representatives — all Democrats, and all of whom eventually voted for HB40 when it passed the House by a 62-55 tally the following April.
“They worked to defeat it because they didn’t want the bill to end up on Rauner’s desk so that he would have to just sign it or veto it,” said Terry Cosgrove, president of Personal PAC, an abortion-rights group that actually received a candidate questionnaire from Rauner in 2014 promising to support the bill. The Rauners also lent financial support to abortion rights as well with contributions to various agencies.
Email obtained in a FOIA request with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
By April 2017, however, Rauner was promising GOP legislators he’d veto the bill as a way of keeping them in line opposed to a budget.
“He went from a philanthropist who really believes in something (to) you could just see that he had trepidation, fear, and so his flip-flopping was no surprise,” Feigenholtz said.
“There were a lot of high-running emotions at that time,” she added. “I think the governor knew this was a very divisive issue for some of the more conservative people of his party. I don’t think he played it right.
“Perhaps he never thought this bill would end up on his desk. I don’t know.”
The compromise budget nonetheless passed — ending a two-year impasse in which the state had operated without one — over Rauner’s veto.
Yet he did not veto HB40, signing it Sept. 28, 2017, a few days after the General Assembly had formally sent it to his desk. That outraged conservative Republican lawmakers who felt they’d been double-crossed. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich also felt betrayed, saying Rauner “did break his word.”
It caused a schism in the Illinois Republican Party, as John Tillman, chief executive officer of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, immediately labeled the governor “Benedict Rauner.” The following week, Kristina Rasmussen, former head of the IPI and then Rauner’s chief of staff, left the administration.
State Sen. Dan McConchie, a Republican from Hawthorn Woods, accused the governor of “flip-flopping,” and indeed he did.
In a 2014 candidate questionnaire submitted to Personal PAC before he was elected, Rauner said, “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," adding, "I would support a legislative effort to reverse that law.”
He said very much the same thing in defending his actions on HB40 in a debate with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker earlier this month at WLS-TV in Chicago.
But in between, according to the Chicago Tribune, in the midst of the HB40 debate in April 2017, “as Rauner tried to keep Republicans united in the midst of a historic budget standoff against Democrats, he termed the abortion legislation ‘divisive’ and threatened to veto it.”
Sources say the political reasoning was twofold: to keep Republicans unified on the budget impasse, and to scare off any legislators thinking of casting a controversial vote in favor of HB40, which would come to be nothing more than an empty gesture with his veto.
The emails find Rauner administration staffers plotting to peel off potential Democratic votes as it gained support and moved toward passage in the General Assembly. “Clearly the governor got wind of it and tried to pick them off like little bowling pins,” Feigenholtz said.
“You can do a (prospective) roll call and not tell people what side you’re on, which essentially is what he was doing,” said Feigenholtz, who spoke with some of those colleagues while Rauner staffers were polling them. “He wasn’t asking for a ‘yes’ vote. That was the smoking gun.”
The emails also find Diana Rauner taking part in organizing a “staff briefing on HB40” in the days before the governor signed it. She suggests in an email to DHFS Director Felicia Norwood that she knew Norwood had been instructed to withhold sensitive information on HB40 while it was still under consideration in the General Assembly.
“Do you have estimates of the cost savings as well as expenses for HB40?” Diana Rauner writes Norwood. “I know that you were asked not to provide that when scoring the bill but it seems important to get it on the table.”
“Felicia had been told — and I think it was actually all agency heads were told — that they could not” talk about sensitive legislation, Cosgrove said. “They didn’t want the agency heads talking to anyone about anything without their permission.”
Feigenholtz pointed out that HB40 was a revision of a bill she’d submitted the previous year, except that it also called for removal of the “trigger language” in the state’s original abortion law — which suddenly became an issue after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 with his pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices who’d overturn Roe v. Wade.
The governor actually had little opposition to that addendum, she added, but as the bill gained momentum in the General Assembly the administration got much chillier toward it, led by Norwood. “She was much more muted, shall we say, in the second go-round with 40,” Feigenholtz said.
The original bill had established that there would be no economic impact from expanding abortion coverage in Medicaid and the state’s employee insurance program, but suddenly there were suggestions that there would be a cost, and Norwood wasn’t clarifying the issue. “There were all kinds of numbers floating around, which was our first indication that they were trying to sink the bill,” Feigenholtz said.
Feigenholtz also pointed to a video Norwood recorded in defense of Rauner’s veto threat in the weeks leading up to the House vote in April 2017. “It was really appalling,” Feigenholtz said.
In return for her loyalty on the issue, Rauner apparently left Norwood hanging out to dry. After the bill cleared the House in April and the Senate in May, it was held until being dropped abruptly on the governor’s desk on Sept. 25, 2017.
Three days later, Diana Rauner writes to Norwood again in an email, seeming to suggest the DHFS director was left in the dark about Rauner deciding to sign HB40 until just moments before a news conference on the announcement.
“Felicia somehow you were not looped in and the presser is at 3,” she writes. “This was such a close hold that no one knew who was in charge of telling you.”
According to the FOIA’d email, that was sent at 2:57 p.m. the same day.
Rauner’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier that same day, Feigenholtz said she got a phone call from the governor about her stated resistance to separating out the Medicaid and insurance provisions and just letting the “trigger language” pass — a tactic Rauner could have taken himself with an amendatory veto.
According to Feigenholtz, Rauner said, “I hear you’re being stubborn and that you’re willing to throw women under the bus because you can’t compromise.”
This, keep in mind, from a governor who had resisted compromise on the state budget for two years.
“And I said, ‘Governor, I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday,’” Feigenholtz recalled. “I said, ‘You know what? Sign the bill. I am not compromising on poor women. You shouldn’t either.
“‘You don’t truly believe you should veto this bill,’” she added. “‘Do the right thing. Do whatever you want, but I am not taking an amendatory veto on this.’ I said, ‘You should sign the bill. You know you want to.’”
Later that day, Rauner did sign the bill, rejecting an amendatory veto.
Feigenholtz emphasized, however, that for her it was not power politics but about fairness, about rejecting the notorious Hyde Amendment, named for former Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, which banned public funds from paying for abortions for women who couldn’t otherwise afford them.
“This is the path of economic independence for women,” Feigenholtz said, calling HB40 the “lynchpin” in guaranteeing reproductive rights. She pointed out it is the only U.S. state law passed in 41 years to counter the Hyde Amendment.
“The Hyde Amendment is one of the most discriminatory laws in the country,” she said, “and I was determined to rid Illinois of it. And I did.”
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October 16, 2018 at 08:26PM