CHICAGO — Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner said Monday he strongly prefers to have a farmer take over the Illinois Department of Agriculture and that he wouldn't impose sales taxes that would put Illinois' farmers at a disadvantage compared with those in other states.
Speaking to a meeting of the Illinois Farm Bureau in Chicago, the Winnetka Republican said farmers have helped Illinois weather tough economic times and that the state needs an agriculture sector that's "booming."
"We need our farmers to be competitive," he said.
The issue of who should lead the state's Agriculture Department arose several times during Rauner's campaign against Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn this year.
Rauner took shots at Agriculture Director Bob Flider, whom Quinn appointed to the post after Flider lost a 2010 re-election bid to the Illinois House. Flider, who didn't have farming experience, then voted for a Quinn-backed 67 percent income-tax increase after earlier opposing it.
Rauner said he has several farmers on his transition team, and he urged Monday's crowd to recommend people for top state jobs who have expertise and experience in the industry.
"I want farmers running our Agriculture Department to benefit farmers," Rauner said, drawing applause from the audience. He later told reporters his "very strong preference" is to have an active farmer as his ag director.
Rauner also said the next two years will be "very rough" because of Illinois' financial troubles and he won't be "Mr. Popularity for a while."
This year's $35.7 billion state budget is billions short of what's needed, and next year's budget gap will be even greater. That's partially because Illinois' income tax rate is scheduled to drop from 5 percent to 3.75 percent on Jan. 1.
Rauner, who takes office Jan. 12, said he plans to manage the budget using the 3.75 percent rate. But he also said "nothing will be off the table," and he didn't get into detail about what unpopular decisions he plans to make.
Rauner has previously said he may be open to a higher tax rate, but wants it to drop to 3 percent within four years. He's also said Illinois needs to overhaul its tax code and impose a sales tax on some services.
He said the state's tax policies in respect to agriculture — such as a current sales tax exemption on some farm machinery — should reflect what other states do.
"We should never put our farmers at a competitive disadvantage to farmers in other states," he said.