Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner won the 2014 gubernatorial election on a 44-point Turnaround Agenda meant to “shake up Springfield.”
Rauner understood Illinoisans’ need for change. They were suffering under the worst jobs recovery in the nation. Homeowners were being squeezed by the nation’s highest property taxes. And pension costs were consuming a quarter of the state budget, crowding out everything from college grants for low-income students to services for the disabled.
Illinoisans voted for Rauner and his agenda to change how government does business, to revive the state economy and to provide relief to taxpayers.
Three years later, things have changed dramatically. Illinoisans still want reform, but repeated budget stalemates, a media narrative that the governor is unwilling to compromise and pressure from special interest groups has whittled down Rauner’s ambitious reform agenda. It’s gone from 44 priorities to zero.
Term limits on politicians: Gone.
Collective bargaining reforms: Gone.
Returning income tax rates to 3 percent: Gone.
And the remaining “reforms” in the compromise plan taking shape in Springfield have been watered down so much they’ll either do nothing to fix state spending or they'll make things even worse.
The two-pronged pension reform plan fails everyone in Illinois, from state workers and taxpayers to those dependent on social services. Part of the plan will likely be found unconstitutional and waste years of everyone’s time. And the rest perpetuates pension benefits going forward; it’s these unaffordable retirement benefits that got Illinois into this financial mess in the first place.
The proposed workers’ compensation reforms are also marginal and do little to fix the seventh-most expensive system in the nation. These changes would make little difference to struggling businesses.
And the property tax freeze on the table isn’t a freeze at all. It’s filled with so many loopholes it’s essentially worthless. Pension and debt costs are exempted from the freeze. The city of Chicago and its schools are entirely exempted. School districts in financial difficulty are exempted as well. With so many exemptions, taxpayers will still see their bills grow.
There's nothing left in the compromise plan but a massive, $5 billion a year tax hike.
What Illinoisans want
The long list of concessions Rauner has made run contrary to what Illinoisans want and why he was elected in the first place.
Two-thirds of Illinois voters don’t want an income tax hike as part of the state budget, according to a survey conducted by Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and commissioned by the Illinois Policy Institute.
Eighty percent of survey respondents said they want lawmakers to focus on structural reforms before increasing taxes.
It’s absurd for Illinoisans to have to pay more than $5 billion in new taxes just to get their property taxes frozen at highest-in-the-nation levels. Yet that’s the core of Springfield’s “compromise.”
Back to reforms
Rauner has compromised over and over in an attempt to strike a deal, to the point of abandoning every reform he once sought. But no matter how much Rauner gave, House Speaker Mike Madigan never budged.
But there is a silver lining. It should now be clear to everyone, including Rauner, that Madigan was never going to agree to a deal that included any actual reforms. The last two years have validated that Rauner should not have attempted to compromise in the first place.
Springfield really does need to be shaken up.
At this point, Rauner has only one real option left. He has to return to demanding what Illinoisans actually want: structural changes to how Illinois does business.
That means returning to the original Turnaround Agenda. More importantly, it means championing a budget that balances without tax hikes.
The people of Illinois should be listened to – not the politicians, nor the media nor the special interest groups.
Rauner should return to his original message and champion the wants and needs of ordinary Illinoisans.