Walker Envy in Illinois

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Like a Chicago Bears team desperately in need of a quarterback to lead them, Illinois government is falling apart in the huddle. On Monday, a judge refused to throw a penalty flag on Governor Pat Quinn for refusing to allow a scheduled raise for state employees to go through. However, Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Billik refused to award Quinn a touchdown either, and sent Quinn and AFSCME back to arbitration.

Quinn claims he can cancel the raises because the Illinois legislature did not give him the $75 million to pay them. The judge pointed to some agencies that were able to find the money in their budgets for the raises and returned Quinn and AFSCME to replay the down.

Quinn needs all the help he can get. Illinois just finished its fiscal year with an $8.1 billion in its general revenue fund. The auditor general for Illinois found that the state has the worst budget deficit in the country. Unemployment is at 8.6% according to the latest report, and net employment fell by 1800 jobs in May.

Despite the largest tax increase in Illinois history bringing in $7 billion in revenue last year, Illinois is in a fiscal crisis, largely due to ballooning employee pension payments, Medicaid, and past debt. In the last budget, Medicaid and employee pensions were 39 percent of the state general fund.

The new budget Quinn signed does not address the employee pension spending, causing cuts in services all over Illinois. Unlike Wisconsin, which increased Medicaid spending, Illinois cut $2.7 billion from the program. They are even closing prisons because they simply can’t afford to keep them open (probably making some politicians there homeless). Some problems just can’t be solved as easily as a speeding ticket by a neatly folded $20 bill in a handshake.

Illinois residents find themselves looking north again in envy. First it was Brett Favre, then Aaron Rodgers, and now it’s Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker’s big game super recall victory proved that a go deep strategy when it comes to dealing with government employee benefits can be a winner.

Walker’s success has not escaped the attention of the Friendly Illinois Bears fans. In an op-ed column for the Chicago Tribune earlier this month, John Kass asked, “Where is Illinois’ Scott Walker?”

“If there are indeed Scott Walker types here, maybe Republican political leaders have them locked in a room somewhere and refuse to let them out, so they won’t push for bold reform,” said John Tillman, executive director of the fiscally conservative Illinois Policy Institute.

I figure that if Walker had been born in Chicago, the Illinois Republican bosses of the time would have strangled him in his crib, and offered the remains to the Democratic machine as a token of their undying fealty.

However, Tillman told Kass,

“Illinois is as ripe for bold leadership today as was Wisconsin a few years ago,” Tillman said. “But the question is, ‘Who will rise?’ Do we know their name or will we learn it? My belief is that the name won’t come from the names we know, but from the back bench.”

As if on cue, Wisconsin’s governor made an appearance on the Tribune’s op-ed pages himself recently. Walker wrote,

In times of crisis, citizens should demand leadership. In the weeks leading up to the Wisconsin recall election, a supporter and friend told me: “If you hadn’t gone as far as you did, you might have avoided this recall election.” I responded, “We also wouldn’t have fixed our problem. I’m not planning on it, but I’m not afraid to lose.”

The actions we took in balancing the state’s budget and implementing collective bargaining reforms were solely aimed at ensuring that my two sons and other kids would inherit a state better off than the one I had. Burying the next generation under a mountain of crippling debt was never a realistic option.

Economic growth and job creation are largely dependent on certainty, which government can provide by delivering stable services, predictable regulations and a favorable tax climate.

I visited Illinois last week, not to poach businesses but to encourage employers who have a global presence to consider future expansion in Wisconsin. The future of Wisconsin’s economy is tied to the Midwest region — specifically the Chicago and northern Illinois areas, which is why I hope Illinois leaders can make long-term structural changes that will provide certainty to private-sector job creators.

The reforms we enacted in Wisconsin balanced our budget and improved the economic environment for job creators. We did all of that without overall tax increases, massive public employee layoffs or cuts to those who are truly in need of help, such as individuals who rely on Medicaid.

At a recent conference sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the question was raised, could the successes of the Walker Administration in bringing spending under control by asking more of the private sector unions be duplicated elsewhere. The answer that the MacIver Institute’s Brian Fraley and others gave was, yes, it was possible. But the campaign for reform has to be about the reforms and not a single political personality.

So while Illinois is looking for the political version of an Aaron Rodgers before the Illinois economy limps off the field like Jay Cutler, whoever it is that wants to step into a leadership role in Illinois had better start talking about the real crisis the state faces and what needs to be done to fix it.

Raising taxes didn’t fix Illinois’ problems. Borrowing more didn’t fix Illinois’ problems. Using federal stimulus money didn’t fix Illinois’ problems. Not paying the bills didn’t fix Illinois’ problems. Wisconsin tried all those things, too, under Governor Jim Doyle, and Walker still inherited a $3.6 billion structural deficit.

What worked in Wisconsin was bringing state employee benefit costs under control, and that’s what needs to be done in Illinois. Walker won because he had the right playbook.

Or as John Kass wrote, “What was compelling about Walker wasn’t an in-your-face personality. It was his ideas.

“And the idea that it is fiscally unsustainable to larder the public employee unions with big pensions and benefits was the idea that won out.”

If Illinois can bring itself to accept that idea, then maybe someday the politicians in Springfield can do the fiscally responsible shuffle.