Politics & Policy

It’s Time to Reverse Course in Illinois

Can the state’s newly elected GOP governor end public-sector unions’ stranglehold on government?

Chicago — The most portentous election of 2014, which gave the worst-governed state its first Republican governor in twelve years, has initiated this century’s most intriguing political experiment. Illinois has favored Democratic presidential candidates by an average of 16 points in the last six elections. But by electing businessman Bruce Rauner, it initiated a process that might dismantle a form of governance that afflicts many states and municipalities.

Rauner, 58, won his first elective office by promising to change Illinois’s political culture of one-party rule by entrenched politicians subservient to public-sector unions. This culture’s consequences include:

After more than a dozen credit-rating downgrades in five years, the state has the lowest rating among the states. Unfunded public employees’ pension liabilities are estimated, perhaps conservatively, at $111 billion, the nation’s largest such deficit as a percentage of state revenue. Currently, public pensions consume nearly 25 percent of general state revenues. The state owes vendors $6.5 billion in unpaid bills, and more than 1 million people have left Illinois for less dysfunctional states in the last 15 years. Debt per resident is about $24,989, compared with $7,094 in neighboring Indiana.

Four of the previous nine governors went to prison, so, Rauner says, “people know we’ve had bad people in charge.” Bad but routine practices are astonishing. Some legislators practice law, specializing in real-estate tax appeals: They are paid a portion of what they save clients by reducing the clients’ bills under the laws the legislators have written.

Rauner says previous governors from both parties have been complicit in the unionization of about 93 percent of government employees. Unionization began during the 14 years (1977–91) of Republican governor Jim Thompson. Governor Rod Blagojevich, now an inmate, instituted “card check” unionization. Rauner says union organizers would tell individuals: Sign the card or else — we know where your wife works and your children go to school.

Rauner is a tall, confident, relaxed man with a powerful voice and a plan to break “a totally rigged system.” The plan includes structural reforms necessary to enable lasting policy reforms.

By executive order, Rauner has stopped the government from collecting for unions “fair share” fees from state employees who reject joining a union. This, he says, violates First Amendment principles by compelling people to subsidize speech with which they disagree. The unions might regret challenging this in federal court: If the case reaches the Supreme Court, which might be ready to overturn the 1977 decision that upheld “fair shares,” this would end the practice nationwide.

Rauner hopes to ban, as some states do, public employees’ unions from making political contributions, whereby they elect their employers with whom they negotiate their compensation. Rauner notes that an owner of a small firm that does business with Illinois’ government is forbidden to make political contributions. Rauner also hopes to enable counties and local jurisdictions to adopt right-to-work laws, thereby attracting business that will locate only where there are such laws.

He hopes the legislature will empower voters to ratify changes to the state constitutional provision that says public pensions can never be “diminished or impaired.” He also proposes shifting state employees from unaffordable defined-benefit plans to a more affordable plan for the state. Furthermore, he hopes to end practices that now have more than 11,000 retirees receiving six-figure pensions.

Another 2016 referendum would impose term limits on state legislators, ending the careerism on which the corrupt system depends. This would rile Democrat Michael Madigan, who was elected to the legislature in 1970 and has been speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983. But Madigan might want the state’s crisis tamed in case his daughter Lisa, currently Illinois’ attorney general, chooses to run for governor.

Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both houses of the legislature, and redistricting has entrenched incumbents. Democrats do, however, fear being challenged in primaries by unions punishing anyone disobedient. A question is whether reform-minded Democratic donors might protect Democrats.

By allowing a temporary tax increase to actually be temporary — to lapse — Rauner increased his leverage with the legislature, which lusts for revenues not swallowed by pensions. Chicago’s parlous fiscal condition also gives Rauner leverage with his friend Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has leverage with many Democratic legislators.

An Illinois governor (Adlai Stevenson) once said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness, except in the Illinois legislature, where it is next to impossible.” If Rauner emancipates Illinois from government organized, through its employees’ unions, as an interest group that lobbies itself for perpetual growth, so can other states. And the nation.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post

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