To survive the Illinois GOP must be the anti-tax hike party

By John Ruberry

While there is some debate on whether there was a blue wave nationally after last week’s midterm elections,, in Illinois, my state, there certainly was one.

Voters booted out a Republican governor, billionaire Bruce Rauner, for Democratic billionaire JB Pritzker. Both men opened their wallets to fund their campaigns and downticket races.

And the Democrats won big. For the first time since 2006 the Dems control all state constitutional offices. They picked up two US House seats, both of which cover parts of DuPage County, once the Republican bulwark, along with downstate, against Democratic-controlled Cook County, where Chicago sits.

The Democrats kept their supermajority in the state Senate and regained the one they lost in 2016 in the House.

Which means that the Democrats can run roughshod over the Prairie State.

Pritzker, who enjoyed strong union support going back to his primary race even though his family’s Hyatt Hotels chain has a checkered history with organized labor.  He hired non-union workers to remodel his Chicago mansion. Pritzker has vowed to raise taxes, although by how much remains murky.

Illinois is functionally bankrupt. Its unfunded public pension debt, which is at least $250 million, is among the worst-funded among the states.

Wait, didn’t Illinois just raise income taxes? Yep, last year the personal rate was upped by 32 percent, when House Speaker and state Democratic Party Boss Michael Madigan of Chicago pushed through an override of Rauner’s veto.

Most of that cash has gone to chip away at that pension debt.

So everything will be hunky dory now in Illinois?

No.

Illinois Policy Institute caricature of Michael Madigan

The Land of Lincoln has become the Land of Leaving. Illinois has lost population for four straight years. As I remarked a year ago, southeastern Wisconsin is thriving as businesses seeking access to the Chicago area set up shop there. What’s in Wisconsin? Cold weather–I mention that because Illinois’ brisk winters are often cited as an excuse for apologists for abandoning the state. Wisconsin is also a right-to-work state, property taxes are lower–Illinoisans suffer from the nation’s highest property tax burden–and workers’ compensation laws are more favorable to job creators.

And as bad as Illinois’ state pension funds are, many municipalities, Chicago especially, are confronting an even worse public pension debt problem.

For Pritzker to get his graduated tax enacted–and of course I am sure Madigan favors that too–a constitutional amendment will be required–which voters have to approve. And 2020 is the earliest time for the vote.

Pritzker needs even more money before then to fund, or better yet, partially fund, his ambitious social agenda. Which means he needs a temporary fix. With Madigan in the speaker’s chair and a bicameral General Assembly supermajority, JB will get what he wants. Or more likely what Madigan wants.

My prediction for Illinois is that the people drain, consisting of the more productive Illinoisans, will continue. Which will of course lead to a money drain.

And then?

That’s where the anemic Illinois Republican Party comes in. There are fewer but better Republicans in office now. That could mean that the state GOP will no longer be what local radio host Dan Proft calls the “Stockholm Syndrome” Republicans.

The Illinois GOP must come out unequivocally against a graduated income tax constitutional amendment. And the Republicans in the Land of Lincoln must simplify its message, such as in the matter of the signs that popped up all over the place north of Chicago where I live, “Pritzker Madigan Higher Income Taxes.”

Also, the Republicans need to come out swinging for a property tax freeze.

What about the pensions?

The debt is unsustainable. Illinois has struggled with the looming pension bomb for decades and has responded, with a tax increase here or there, largely by kicking the can down the road.

Illinois still has not had its “Come to Jesus” moment yet on pensions, along the lines of awakening naked in a jail cell covered in vomit with a pounding headache and a nauseating hangover.

When that happens, like an alcoholic who finally admits complete defeat, the cure is on its way.

What Illinois really needs is a different amendment that removes the pension guarantee from constitution. Yes, a pension is a promise, but Boss Madigan, who has been, with the exception of two years, House speaker since 1983, has had his fingerprints on every budget since then.

Madigan traded pension largesse for support from Illinois’ powerful public sector unions, the organized labor division of the Democratic Party. Madigan broke that promise. Most Illinoisans don’t know that. Government pensioners in Illinois should be angry at Madigan and incompetent mayors such as Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, not those trying to repair their damage.

Illinois government retirees at the state and local levels should receive fair but affordable pensions. What is Illinois’ status after decades of Democratic rule, with yes, some Republican assistance? “As a result, Illinois government,” the Chicago Tribune wrote two years ago, “is a massive retirement system that, during work hours, also offers some services.”

It’s time for the GOP to be an agent of change in Illinois.

John Ruberry, a fifth-generation Illinois resident, blogs at Marathon Pundit.