Area legislators react to ‘State of State’ address
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Northwest Side legislators expressed mixed feelings about Governor Bruce Rauner’s "State of the State" address earlier this month, with some calling it divisive, anti-union, anti-middle class, and long on ideas but short on specifics.
"At the beginning of today’s session each of you should have received a copy of our policy agenda," Rauner told the legislators. "It is bold, aggressive and comprehensive. It is both very necessary and very doable.
"Each of you will probably see some things you don’t like, but each of you will certainly see many things that you like a lot. We should consider it as a whole — not as a list of individual initiatives."
Rauner said that his policy includes an economic growth and jobs package, a student and career success package and a taxpayer empowerment and government reform package.
Rauner called for an increase in the state minimum wage of 25 cents an hour each year over the next 7 years, workers compensation reform legislation that updates how injuries are apportioned to ensure that employers pay for injuries that occur on the job, reforms to prevent trial lawyers from "venue shopping," capping awards, making state unemployment insurance more fair for beneficiaries and employers, implementing competitive bidding for public works projects, limiting wage requirements and eliminating project-labor agreements.
Rauner also wants to restructure the motor fuel tax to invest in infrastructure, allow voters in local units of government to decide via referendum whether or not business employees should be forced to join a union or pay dues as conditions of employment, and require unions that contract with the state to have apprenticeship programs that reflect the demographics of the state.
"Empowerment means giving local voters the ability to control the collective bargaining issues in their local governments and take more responsibility for their employee’s benefits," Rauner said. "Empowerment means giving local government employees the ability to decide for themselves whether they want to join a union."
"Employee empowerment zones will increase jobs for residents, increase economic activity for local businesses and generate more tax dollars for local governments," Rauner said. He said that creating the zones will allow municipalities to compete with other states for new businesses and investment.
Rauner said he also wants to increase state support for primary and secondary education, expand access to early childhood education, address teen pregnancies, give local school boards the power to modify unfunded mandates, reform teacher tenure to reward high-performing administrators and educators, improve teacher recruitment, eliminate unnecessary testing and expand vocational programs.
Rauner also wants to freeze property taxes for 2 years, increase the sales tax, implement 8-year term limits for elected officials, expand the prohibition on political contributions for businesses with state contracts to all organizations with collective bargaining agreements and organizations funded by groups that receive state Medicaid funds, reward state workers with performance pay, reduce the prison population by 25 percent in the next 10 years and increase correctional officer staffing to improve inmate safety.
"Much of the reform agenda we’re outlining today has been implemented in other states," Rauner said. "The reforms are working so well in those states that they are causing us to become even less competitive.
"It’s now or never for Illinois. It’s time to act . . . This is our last best chance to get our house in order, to restore good government . . . Competitiveness must become our watchword and opportunity and compassion our goals, so that we can once again become the place people want to come to build a better life for themselves and their families."
State Representative Lou Lang (D-16) said that the speech was full of rhetoric from a new governor.
"It’s hard to figure out what to make of it because he threw a lot of stuff out there," Lang said. "He started the speech talking in an almost conciliatory manner and then it was as if he was reading out of the Republican play book and it’s anti-union, anti-middle class and anti-labor ideas."
"His view of government is that he wants to run it as a business and that he is the boss, but the Constitution says that we are equal branches of government and we are side by side and not up and down," Lang said. If he wants to negotiate, I’m sure we will be able to do that."
State Senator John Mulroe (D-10) said that he does not like the idea of creating employee empowerment zones.
"He may be trying to do the right thing, but the right thing requires assistance from others and I don’t know what you are getting when you alienated unions through this empowerment zone idea," Mulroe said. "This will lead the unions to evaporate."
Mulroe said that at a recent legislative breakfast Rauner was railing against politicians, "calling them corrupt." "I was like, ‘You’re the governor now, so govern. You’re one of the politicians now. You need to solve problems,’" he said.
"I always say that the devil is in the details, and I want to see the details to see if they make any sense," Mulroe said. "Will there be giant spending cuts? He wants to free up non-essential spending. Well, what does that mean? Services are already at an all time low."
State Senator William Delgado (D-2) said in a statement that he supports increasing educational funding but that "until the funds are actually given to those who need it, there is simply no guarantee."
"I’ve lived in a right-to-work state; it will simply stall economic growth and hurt families in the end," Delgado said. "Union members have families that they must provide for. We can’t turn our backs on them."
State Representative John D’Amico (D-15) agreed. "I definitely don’t support his anti-union stance because I’m for the working man of Illinois and we can’t go backwards, and it won’t just affect union workers, it would affect everyone’s salaries and it would have a ripple effect," D’Amico said.
"I was hoping that he would say that we needed to work together," D’Amico said. "I was hoping for an open door policy and I just don’t get that feeling here."
State Representative Michael McAuliffe (R-20) said that Rauner’s speech was a "nice start for him."
"He outlined some of the things that he wanted to do," McAuliffe said. Some of the stuff was anti-union, but it felt to me that in order to do one thing he wants we need to do another thing and another thing.
"When you have an incumbent governor, he points out his accomplishments, but when you have a new governor it’s about how everything is going into shambles and that the budget is full of holes," McAuliffe said. "I think he is genuinely trying to be bipartisan."
McAuliffe said that Rauner has been meeting with Democrats. "What he has done is reach out to the Democratic side, to the people who have not supported him in his bid for governor, and trying to find out what they would need to get the task done," he said. "I think Governor Rauner introduced himself well to the assembly and now its time to give his details in the budget address."
"It was long on generalizations and short on specifics," state Representative Robert Martwick (D-19) said. "His general policy initiatives that he is selling are radically different that what Illinois has been. I think the governor is being divisive and he doesn’t understand what he is in for."
Martwick said that it was a mistake to let the income tax increase to expire at the beginning of the year.
"For the past few years we have been on the right path to get our finances in order, and that’s why we increased the income tax and it felt like we were on the verge of coming out and then he shows up and throws a wrench in to the machine," Martwick said. "He is used to being the boss, and because of that I think he is going to have a hard time working with the legislature."
Martwick said that increasing the sales tax base would only shift the taxpayer burden onto the middle class. "It says, ‘Let me pay less and let you pay more," he said.
Martwick also opposed the governor’s stance on unions.
"When you talk about being anti-union, you would expect partisan applause like during the ‘State of the Union,’ some people sit on their hands and some don’t, but here, even some Republicans were sitting there eerily silent," Martwick said."
State Representative Greg Harris (D-13) said that he was surprised by the governor’s speech.
"I was hoping that he would use the speech to highlight that we see the light at the end of the tunnel and that the state was pulling out of its doldrums, but instead he blasted the unions and Medicaid practitioners," Harris said. "I was hoping for something along the lines of working together to figure out good solutions to our problems, but we didn’t get any of that. He was just being divisive."
"When we talk about expanding the sales tax, what are we talking about? Commodities trading or taxes on food, medicine and dry cleaning? Is this about one more expense that families will have to bear or are we talking about leveling the playing field?" Harris said.
State Representative Iris Martinez (D-20) said in a statement, "While I was pleased that the governor discussed hiring more minorities for construction projects and apprenticeship programs, his words are inconsistent with the actions of an administration that has fired many Latinos in high-level policymaking positions. Furthermore, I do not think attacking working families and public employees and eroding their hard earned pay and protections will lead to a better future for the residents of Illinois."
"Governor Rauner touched on many of the important issues facing Illinois’ families and while I appreciate his thoughts, the people deserve a more detailed plan that specifically lays out the path to recovery," state Representative Martin Moylan (D-55) said in a statement. "From listening to residents in my community, it’s clear that they continue to hold the same concerns: job creation, school funding and skyrocketing property taxes. We will continue as a community to work tirelessly to address the issues most pressing to our neighborhoods."
State Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33) said in a statement that there are millions of surplus dollars in special "rainy day" funds that could be used to ease the state’s financial woes.
"The state of the state is the governor’s opportunity to give the people of Illinois a fact-based assessment of where we are and where we are going," state Senator John Cullerton (D-6) said. "Unfortunately, too much of the governor’s opportunity was squandered with campaign rhetoric that denigrates the reputation of the state."
Cullerton said that "the new governor has a lot to learn if he is to build on our success in Medicaid reform, workers compensation, pension reform, cutting the bill backlog and meeting our obligations."
"The people of this state elected a divided government, but the governor will soon learn that it doesn’t mean that he needs to be divisive," Cullerton said. "As he begins to shape his budget one of his principal tasks will be to identity common ground with the legislature as we all keep working for a better Illinois."