By Jesse L. Jackson
In November, Illinois voters narrowly decided – after one of the most expensive gubernatorial elections in the nation’s history – to elect Bruce Rauner, a hedge fund billionaire, to lead the state. Consider it an experiment in class politics. How would a man of the 0.01 percent address Illinois’ many challenges?
Rauner donned populist garb for the campaign. Pumping some $27.5 million of his own money into the campaign, he promised voters what he knew they wanted: “We’ll get a booming economy with more jobs. We’ll get the best schools in America. We’ll bring down the tax burden. And we’re going to rip this patronage system, and this cronyism system out of Springfield.”
Voters wanted someone who would clean up the corruption. Rauner was an uneasy choice, partly because his hedge fund was a leading investor of Illinois’ pension funds, a line of business infamous for corruption and rip-offs. And partly because the promises didn’t add up: better schools, better infrastructure, less debt, and lower taxes – how does that work? But enough voters decided to take the risk.
So what is Rauner’s first act? He declared war on Illinois’ public unions.
His State of the State address blamed unions for Illinois’ problems. Public employees had the nerve to negotiate for decent pay and pensions. Their retirees expected that the contractual promises to pay the compensation would be honored. Their unions contributed volunteers and money to political campaigns. They were bankrupting the state.
So Rauner urged localities to pass so-called “right to work” laws that would disembowel unions. Then he issued an executive order – declared illegal by the Illinois Attorney General – to weaken state unions by barring them from assessing fees on some of the workers they represent –and benefit – in collective bargaining.
In a unionized workplace, union negotiated wages and benefits apply to workers who aren’t members of the union. Non-members – about 15 percent of the unionized workplaces – don’t have to pay union dues or support union political activities. But under Illinois law, they pay a fair-share fee, to cover the cost of collective bargaining and enforcement from which they directly benefit.
Fair share fees don’t contribute to Illinois fiscal problems. Rauner is waging a war on unions. He hopes to cripple those who opposed him in his last election. But the stakes are larger than that: what Rauner is proposing is to inflict trickle down economics on Illinois.
We haven’t seen Rauner’s budget yet, but we know what is coming. Income taxes will be lowered on the rich; sales taxes extended on working people, making Illinois’ already regressive state tax structure even more unfair.
Rauner has already frozen all “non-essential” state spending and hiring, with an exemption, apparently, for a $100,000 a year chief of staff for his spouse.
The war on public workers will be accompanied by a continued assault on public schools. The piecemeal privatization of public education will be accompanied by piecemeal privatization of more public services. Rauner has already teed up Medicaid – health services for the impoverished – for cuts. Pension funds imbalances – caused by irresponsible officials refusing to make promised contributions and by hedge fund geniuses pocketing big fees for paltry returns – will be corrected by breaking the contractual promise to retirees. Rauner clearly would lower the minimum wage if he could.
Rauner will peddle this toxic potion as a charm for Illinois’ ills. Austerity, he’ll argue, will unleash jobs and growth. Breaking unions will balance budgets. Charters will lift kids. Medicaid cuts will focus on the unworthy. Everyone will sacrifice; everyone will benefit.
But the reality is predictable – as Wisconsin and Kansas have discovered. The wealthy – a leading source of the corruption that plagues Illinois – will get tax breaks. The middle class will get paycuts. The poor will get less help. The schools will be cut; good teachers will leave.
Illinois voters were sensible enough not to give Rauner a free rein: Democrats still control the legislature. Rauner is making it clear where he stands. Now Democrats will have to decide which side they are on.
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at www.rainbowpush.org.