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Illinois Issues: State Of The State — Light At The End Of The Tunnel Or Perpetual Train Wreck?

flickr/ rabiem22

Commentary — Might we be seeing light at the end of the tunnel? Or is it the headlamps of the ongoing train wreck that is Illinois, picking up speed? Such questions came to mind listening to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s State of the State address last week.

At times the governor sounded downright accommodating. “If each of us commits to serious negotiation based on mutual respect for our co-equal branches of government, there’s not a doubt in my mind we can come together to pass a balanced budget alongside reforms ... To achieve a grand compromise, we must cast partisanship and ideology aside.”

At others, he seemed as pugnacious as ever. AFSCME leaders are “undeterred and unashamed” as the state’s largest public workers union makes compensation demands “out of touch with reality,” Rauner declared.

And not just union leaders, but trial lawyers, too, are “putting pressure on you to keep the status quo,” the governor told lawmakers. “But if we don’t offer a competitive environment for businesses, pretty soon the unions won’t have any more jobs to unionize and the trial lawyers won’t have any more businesses to sue.”

Credit State of Illinois

Clearly, Rauner has not tempered his loathing for organized labor. But setting aside that ideology, a point on which the protagonists in this melodrama ought just agree to disagree, an optimist could find promising nuggets sprinkled throughout the governor’s half-hour address.

The governor wants to fix workers’ compensation. Why not employ a time-tested technique from the past, the agreed bill process, as suggested here previously? Invite business and labor to the table to negotiate changes to the current way in which work-related injuries are handled, with an eye toward reducing employer costs while protecting employees and guaranteeing the cost savings are passed on to the business community, instead of pocketed by insurance companies writing the coverage.

 Similarly, one suspects, common ground could be found on so-called tort reform, changing the rules under which injured parties can collect damages from those whose negligence harmed them. Sweeping changes aren’t likely but don’t expect a cap on noneconomic damages, dubbed “pain-and-suffering” awards. But less dramatic reforms could help, such as narrowing the choice of courtrooms in which a plaintiff can sue, or capping recovery for doctors’ bills at the amount paid, rather than billed.

In past years, Democrats have joined Republicans in supporting revisions to both workers’ compensation and the civil justice system, especially when the legislation embodied business-labor agreement. This spring should be no different.

The governor also renewed his call for property tax relief, linking it to “local control,” code words for making collective bargaining optional for cities, counties, school boards and other governmental units. Specifically, he lauded a report by a task force headed by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti that proposed several dozen ways to lower property tax bills through consolidation — Illinois has more local taxing units than any other state — and relief from unfunded mandates, which most often for the task force came down to eliminating collective bargaining and requirements that union wages be paid on public construction projects.

 But look on the bright side.

“I know some items in the report are easier to pass than others,” Rauner said, “so let’s pass the easier ones first. We don’t have to pass them all day one. We do need to get started on consolidation and mandate reduction right now.”

“Easier” is a relative term, of course. Anyone who’s watched past legislative efforts to reduce the number of special districts or to combine small school districts might be inclined to consider the task quite difficult. On the other hand, eliminating and merging local taxing units is not virtually impossible, as the governor’s union-busting, “local control” ideas are in the current political arena.

Credit House Republicans
Gov. Bruce Rauner shakes hands with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as he makes his way to the front of the House chamber to give his address.

So let’s attempt the doable for now and save the impossible for later. School districts in particular would benefit if some of the micro-managing red tape imposed by the state were eliminated.

In a broader sense, a similar pragmatic approach helped Rauner notch the bipartisan victories he cited in the address: closing a $1.6 billion hole in the FY 2015 budget, revamping unemployment insurance, crafting historic criminal justice reforms and changing law enforcement procedure and training.

Those achievements came without enactment of the governor’s anti-union, pro-business “Turnaround Agenda” as a precondition, a point noted by House Speaker Michael Madigan, the governor’s chief nemesis.

Which brings us to the “elephant in the room,” in the words of one lawmaker, the fact Illinois is now in the eighth month of fiscal year 2016 with only a piece of a budget enacted, a measure authorizing $9.8 billion for elementary and secondary education and $3.8 billion for pensions for suburban and Downstate teachers, which Rauner signed June 24. Yet the state is spending at a clip estimated to be some $4 billion higher than anticipated revenues, thanks to payments required by law, court orders and consent decrees. But no money is going to human service providers not protected by the federal courts nor to higher education, including scholarship assistance for low-income students, threatening irreparable harm to folks on society’s margins.

At the heart of the budget impasse is Rauner’s insistence that his agenda be enacted before he’ll discuss balancing the budget, including the tax hikes even he acknowledges will be needed to right the floundering ship of state. Democrats have refused to capitulate, arguing that enacting a budget is the No. 1 task for the governor and the legislature each year. Moreover, they charge, the governor’s anti-union proposals would hurt middle- and lower-income Illinois families. 

Credit flickr/ Damian Gadal
Some of the proposals the governor made in his State of the State address would require additional funding.

  Rather than prolong the stalemate forever, maybe everyone would be well advised to heed the governor’s observation about the Sanguinetti recommendations — everything doesn’t have to be done at once. Instead, focus first on what’s relatively easier in Rauner’s agenda, such as negotiated workers’ compensation and tort revisions, maybe prevailing wage waivers for small projects.  Leave the full-scale assault on organized labor for another day.

Next, focus on enacting a budget that funds vital human services, college scholarships and pared-down operating costs for public colleges and universities, as well as making targeted cuts in other programs now running on auto pilot.

Finally, agree on the inevitable “revenue enhancements” needed to pay for everything for this year, plus the future costs of the new initiatives the governor unveiled in his State of the State message and which he’ll presumably include in his FY 2017 budget proposal, due to be unveiled on February 17.

Consider three of his laudable proposals:

  • Revamping the criminal justice system with more emphasis on rehabilitation programming to reach the goal of cutting the state’s prison population by a quarter over the next nine years.
  • Boost funding for K-12 education with a focus on low income and rural school districts, without taking money away from better-off, suburban districts.
  • Modernize the state’s ancient information technology systems, many unable to communicate with their electronic counterparts in other agencies, vulnerable to cyber attacks and expensive to maintain.

One common thread runs through the trio and some of the governor’s other good ideas — all carry a price tag.
Providing rehabilitation services — educational opportunities, vocational training, substance abuse treatment, behavioral therapy and other proven antidotes to recidivism —  requires greater investment than three meals a day and watchful guards.

Increasing some school districts’ slice of the education funding pie without reducing someone else’s total calories requires a larger pie.

Bringing the state’s IT infrastructure into the 21st century requires new hardware, software and human capital, none of which come cheap.

Besides allocating the dollars, the legislature’s majority Democrats likely will have to sign off on whatever statutory changes might be needed to establish the new programs, another potential bargaining chip to go on the table for the governor’s grand compromise.

So if folks are looking for a way out of Springfield’s version of The Twilight Zone, the path appears right there in the governor’s message — serious negotiation based on mutual respect for the two co-equal branches of government, casting aside partisanship and ideology. Let’s hope our leaders follow it, one small step at a time.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issuesis produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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