Executive Director Reports

Illinois on the Brink

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Stopping the downward spiral

The final bell has now rung on the 2017 legislative session, and Illinois has no budget for the third straight year. Granted, legislators can be called back into special session before the new fiscal year and adopt a budget by a three-fifths majority, but such an outcome isn't any too likely.

The byzantine and truly bizarre budget battles of these past months have left everyone from average citizens to astute political observers increasingly irate.

And at long last, the blame is landing right where it belongs—at Bruce Rauner’s doorstep. There’s growing recognition that Rauner is inflicting immense damage on our state, undermining its economic viability, destabilizing its educational system and tearing at its social fabric.

But to what end? Even Republican legislators fail to make a convincing case for the blockade that’s driving Illinois deeper into debt and despair, its bond rating perched on the precipice of junk.

When pressed to explain his ever-shifting set of demands that must be met before he’ll sign a budget, the foundation on which every unit of government and private business operates, Rauner remains evasive and cagey.

Is it changes to workers’ compensation, probably the most frequently mentioned of his ultimatums? Rauner claims that employer costs to cover workers injured on the job are making the state uncompetitive. But actually our workers’ comp costs are in line with other states and there’s little evidence that they matter much to business decisions about where to locate.

Is it public employee pensions? Rauner’s resurrected that issue, never mind the constitutional pension protection clause and forceful rulings of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Is it a property tax freeze? That’s what Rauner likes to talk about, but when Democrats in the Senate introduced a measure to freeze local property taxes for two years, Rauner trashed the bill, saying the freeze had to be permanent. That would be disastrous for our communities, since local governments rely on property tax revenue to maintain public services from garbage pick-up and policing to road repair and elementary schools.

So why has Rauner seized on the property tax freeze as his rationale for blocking a state budget? Maybe because it polls well. He never bothers to mention the steep cuts it would eventually require to our schools and local governments.

It’s those steep cuts that Rauner’s game is really about. His insistence on a property tax freeze is his back-door attempt to dismantle the workplace rights of public-sector workers. He thinks that if local governments and school districts don’t have enough money to operate, they’ll join his crusade to wipe out collective bargaining rights and unilaterally slash the wages and benefits of their employees.

While some of Rauner’s longtime cheerleaders on newspaper editorial pages are beginning to doubt his judgment, others still insist that Democrats share blame for the budget debacle. That’s dangerously misleading.

The record is very clear: Over the past four months, Senate President John Cullerton engaged in an intensive effort to address Rauner’s stated goals through negotiations with Republicans in that chamber. Many, including me, believe Cullerton went too far in that regard. But at the end of the day—when legislators of both parties had purportedly agreed—Rauner torpedoed the entire effort.

The simple fact is that the Democrats made a true good-faith effort to find common ground, while Rauner made no effort at all. His fundamental goal is unchanged: to permanently drive down the standard of living of working families by obliterating organized labor in our state.

When Rauner first took office, he boasted to a group of legislators that if his agenda was enacted, within four years there would be zero union members left in the state of Illinois. He hasn’t yet come close to achieving that goal.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Rauner is ever more enraged by his failure—and his rage is making him increasingly reckless. Worse, he has untold wealth to use in service of his damaged ego.

We don’t have anything close to his riches—and, fortunately for us, we’re not driven by blind fury. What we do have is our unity and our determination to defend our rights and fight back for working families.

We can best do that by starting right now to build the kind of electoral army that can knock on every door in every community in our state. That’s how we can make sure that every voter understands the damage that Bruce Rauner has caused and the urgent need to evict him from the governor’s office.

It’s going to take more effort than we’ve ever put forth, and lots of sheer grit. But when the stakes are so high—the future of our state, of our jobs, of our families—we’ve got no choice but to give it our all.