By Frank J Biga III -
As a precinct captain and local NW suburban politico, I get the chance to see a lot of politicians and candidates give speeches, especially during campaign season. I traveled the circuit quite a bit during the 2014 gubernatorial primary and got to see all of the GOP candidates speak and debate. And thinking back on that time it certainly felt as if the primary was Rauner’s to lose. He won endorsement after endorsement at the local level and successfully dodged some of the debates not allowing his opponents to pin him down. He ran a masterful operation and his omnipresent media buys gave the impression that he could get things done in Springfield and turn our state around.
Of course, he was asked several times during the primary campaign about the fact that the Legislative branch was very likely to be run by the Democrats and therefore how did he propose to deal with Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton? Two specific points I recall then candidate Rauner making at a Palatine Township Republican meeting was that he was studying the moves taken by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and he implied he would model his governorship after Daniels’. Second, he was hard at work analyzing the office of Illinois Governor and asserted that in Illinois, the office of Governor was made very powerful in the State Constitution and that he would use those powers to positive effect.
At the time I thought some of this was bluster. There are indeed three branches of government. Governor Daniels never faced a maestro like Madigan either. And true enough, thus far at least, the Governor has been effectively stymied by the Legislature and has been unable to effect any substantive reform whatsoever. Governor Rauner, unless he changes tactics, is on the road to being a very forgettable chief executive who could not manage the State, let alone reform it.
Consider that the State is now without a budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which ends June 30. It does not have a budget for the coming 2016-17 year either. This is so extreme that former Governor Edgar has called for Rauner to compromise on his Turnaround Agenda and get a budget passed through compromise.
The State has over $6 Billion in unpaid bills and the average delay on bills getting paid is two months. This has a negative effect on economic activity in the state. Without a budget in place, state employees are being paid by court order rather than statutory authority. Comptroller Munger recently started withholding lawmaker salaries and put them in to the queue along with other bills.
The pension liability is now approaching $120 Billion. Crime is way up in the city of Chicago. Businesses and people are leaving the state. ComEd just announced the closure of two nuclear plants and the loss of jobs associated with it. And, most insulting to Rauner, the Madigan-led legislature recently passed a budget proposal that is $7 Billion in the red for the coming year. This almost seems a deliberate attempt to poke him in the eye.
As the chief executive, for better or worse, Governor Rauner will suffer the consequences for all of these negative headlines. Plus, many in the conservative commentariat are mis-diagnosing the problems of our State. This is not a crisis. Our problems are eminently solvable.
So why has there been no grand compromise? Because the Governor is overplaying his hand. He still does indeed have to deal with the Legislature and with his party in the super-minority to boot. Evidently the office of IL Governor was not as powerful as Rauner alluded to in some of his primary campaign speeches as if it was he would surely have used those powers to get Madigan to acquiesce.
So Rauner is in a weak position. Therefore it is not the time to play this game of brinkmanship. The cries that our state faces a crisis do not hold water either. Our state may have problems. But it also has tremendous Assets that clearly exceed its Liabilities. The biggest problem is the lack of growth, which is partially caused by national problems but can be offset somewhat by better policies here. Yet given the weak political position of the GOP, major changes can not be made at this time. And insisting on such just plays in to the Democrats hands.
So, since it’s not really a crisis, the Governor would have been better off playing for time in his first two years and showing how much more competently managed the State could have been under him. That is where his statutory and constitutional powers lie anyways. It’s not like he had some huge mandate or anything. He barely cracked 50% of the vote. So make incremental changes within the law. Employ marginal thinking. In contrast to the last few Governors and given his business background this should not be that hard for him. He still has time this year to make this tactical switch.
Then he should use the popularity that would come with such results to vigorously campaign for more like-minded legislators. Then run for re-election. He can probably be Governor as long as he wants simply because of his bankroll. There is no serious threat to him in either party unless he drives the state into oblivion. In the long run, if he shows how much better he could run the state, he could then attempt to implement some of the bigger changes which right now appear radical to the many Illinoisans not in his party but from whom he needs political support to be a transformative Governor.
Governor Rauner must also be made to realize that free market fundamentalism doesn’t work in times like these. People across the world are turning inward, for better or worse. The British people just voted to leave the European Union. The reason? They didn’t want to lose their country and their culture in exchange for bigger dividend checks. Saul Alinsky’s method of buying Western culture off with a few bags of silver has been repudiated. This pattern is likely to continue.
Likewise, the people of Illinois do not believe in the proposition that we need wholesale emasculation of unions by stripping them of much of their collective bargaining rights. To many, Rauner’s anti-labor proposals taste like more castor oil from the globalist elite. Large segments of our population have gone without real wage hikes for decades. People want protection from the ravages of the free market. Unions, to many, provide a form of protection. Much of the working class may not read Adam Smith or David Ricardo but one thing they do know at least intuitively is that our country’s stagnation coincides with the decline of unionism, among other concoctions of the trans-nationalist crowd.
And this sentiment of much of the working class in this state only helps Madigan and Cullerton keep their caucuses together. It also ensures large majorities if not supermajorities for the Democrats in both chambers. How does this aid and abet the Governor’s hopes for transformative change? It doesn’t.
Union propaganda certainly exploits Governor Rauner’s anti-union rhetoric and one can be certain they will do so again in the November legislative elections. They have always had a mobilization effort second to none in this state. That has not changed nor will it any time soon no matter how many million dollar checks he writes in campaign contributions.
In fact, from a political perspective, Madigan has little incentive to make a serious deal, especially with Rauner remaining insistent on the more radical reforms. The Governor serves as a very effective bogeyman for the rank and file of the Democratic electorate. And every pensioner in the State will get out and vote to protect their pensions as well given the current paradigm. The continued stalemate with the budget will only help Madigan. Not having a plan for financing schools coming in to the new year will also not resonate well with voters either. So how does the Governor turn this around?
My recommendations. In the short run, save face for now. Drop the unrealistic anti-union demands. Put forward a proposal to freeze property taxes across the state for three years in exchange for a temporary income tax increase to 4.25% ending at the same time. Another possibility is to tax interest, dividends and capital gains at higher rates than income. The average person in Illinois does not care if the wealthy or investor class pay more. In the current budget, compromise at a more reasonable number than the current Democratic proposal, but try to focus more state dollars on infrastructure spending to reduce unemployment. This will be an excellent point for the campaign in 2018.
But whatever the deal is, one must be cut here. The State needs a budget and government must be seen as being run competently and for the benefit of all Illinoisans. The longer this goes on, the more it hurts the Governor, not Madigan. But, on the other hand, cutting a deal helps Rauner a lot more than it helps Madigan.
But over the long term, Divide and Conquer. Assure pensioners that you are going to solve the problem. They were promised what they were promised. As grotesque as those pension levels might be to some, the uncertainty regarding this is more damaging. So put forward a serious proposal to refinance the pensions obligations over 30 years and incorporate this debt service in to the state budget. These are promises the State made. Then figure out the level of taxation needed to finance this. The certainty of this will go a long way towards re-invigorating the State’s economy.
But require that such a maneuver would only happen with serious pension reforms going forward potentially 401k style programs for all legislators and new employees and reductions in retirement package final years’ raises for all current state and local government employees at 2% (currently 6%) along with taxation of Illinois pension benefits (but not Social Security or private pension income).
Peel some of these folks away from the Democratic fold with more reasonable proposals. If the average current pensioner knows his/her pension is secure, he/she will back proposals like these and will see the Governor as the savior of their retirements.
On the political side, barnstorm the state in districts that are winnable for GOP legislators and especially for Leslie Munger in her special election. This is more psychological than anything. The GOP must show they can win statewide, especially in a Presidential election year. But the GOP MUST pick up a few seats in the General Assembly to chip away at Madigan’s power. This is the paramount political objective of the next few months.
Then make a serious push to win back some of the other statewide offices in 2018. An excellent candidate for Attorney General would be Kirk Dillard if he could be convinced out of the private sector. Recruit a serious candidate to run for Secretary of State, whether or not Jesse White runs again. In fact, he might be convinced to call it quits if he knows he will face the race of his life with a well-funded and well-known opponent. Tom Cross would have a good chance to win a rematch against Mike Frerichs.
All of this must be prefaced by a smoother legislative and budget process in the next two years. Stalemate excites no one. The Governor must convince those who voted against him that he can govern the State before he can transform it. The Governor must take a slower and long term approach to changing Illinois. He must convince more voters that he has all of our best interests in mind. He must slowly erode away the Democratic edifice. He should plan on being Governor for 3 terms and on building a growing coalition of supporters over that time rather than using a more direct frontal assault on the current monolith.
Governor Rauner currently faces a losing hand. His Turnaround Agenda is a dead letter. It will go nowhere and the longer he insists on it, the longer our State’s malaise will continue. He needs an agenda that will “Turn the Tables” on Madigan and company instead. This is a time to be a Fox, not a Hedgehog.
(NOTE: In the interests of full disclosure, Frank Biga is a high school teacher and a member of the AFT Local 943 and does have a pension with the state of IL. He is the Treasurer of Local Council 229 and has been a member of their negotiating team.)