Our Sorry State

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Welcome to Illinois: where the Republicans are extremists, and the Democrats are DINOs (Democrats In Name Only).

In the current state budget that runs until June, Governor Bruce Rauner faced a $1.6 billion hole– a hole that would not exist had the 3.75 percent state income tax remained at five percent, which the media conveniently forgets. But instead of raising revenue to balance the budget, Rauner-the-Reamer has cut, cut, and cut a lot more.

Rauner’s fiscal conservatism does not extend, however, to the salaries he rewards those near and dear to him. His take-no-prisoners business practices were clear before his election. In one case, he allegedly told former business associate Christine Kirk, “If you go legal on us, we’ll hurt you and your family.” Rauner also allegedly threatened her through a third party: “I will bury her. I will make her radioactive. She will never get another job anywhere, ever. I will bankrupt her with legal fees.” For this and other stories, journalist Dave McKinney left the Chicago Sun-Times after a 19-year career. After his 2014 election, Rauner threatened his Senate Republican colleagues, allegedly telling them to vote in favor of all 10 issues on his agenda, “not five, not seven,” and anybody who did not was going to have a “fucking problem” with him.

Governor Rauner’s “shock and awe”


Current stopgap budget cuts – to which the DINOs in Springfield acquiesced – are only the shape of things to come if Rauner has his way on next year’s budget. He has already made his “shock and awe” strategy explicit. Investigative journalist Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) lays it out presciently. Her quintessential case is the “shock and awe” perpetrated on Iraq beginning with George Bush’s 2003 war of aggression. First, the “shock and awe” bombing campaign. Second, wiping the slate of the state clean: disbanding the Iraqi army, firing Saddam’s Baathist bureaucracy. Third, the Provisional Authority encouraging in its place unfettered, regulation-free, crony capitalism to run rampant. Besides Iraq, Klein shows how this neoliberalism-with-a-vengeance shock doctrine has been put into effect all the way from Chile 1973, through to South Africa 1994, on to New Orleans post-Katrina 2005 — and we could add Scott Walker’s Wisconsin 2011.

“Crisis creates opportunity for change”

This is what the Reamer is doing right this minute in Illinois. By refusing to generate revenue through taxes, his cuts are manufacturing a crisis, making already bad problems much, much worse. “The opportunity to bring big structural change is right now, as part of the 2016 budget,” is the snake-oil Rauner is peddling. “Now is the opportunity to drive change along with the budget.” And the clincher: “Because crisis creates opportunity for change.” He drove his message home to a belief-suspending Chicago Tribune editorial board: “Crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates leverage to change … and we’ve got to use that leverage of the crisis to force structural change.”

His piling-on, worsened crisis will be resolved once so-called “structural reforms” are made. It is clear what those structural reforms are: herding state workers into 401(k) pensions, enacting right-to-work-for-less, ban “fair share” union dues payments to give a “free ride” to non-union workers, cutting workers’ compensation costs for job-related injuries, continuing a regressive instead of a progressive state income tax, refusing to raise the minimum wage in real terms, and slashing social services. Regarding social services funding, Rauner has said, “I just had to put the brakes on.”

It is important to point out that many of Rauner’s cuts cost more in the longer-term than ephemeral savings in the short-term. His supporters argue cuts are required to restore state fiscal health. Yet study after study has shown that cutting such programs as Medicaid drives people to seek higher-priced health care, for example, in hospital emergency rooms. Same with the UIUC budget. Every dollar in funding generates high returns on the state’s investment, the University argues.

Such rational calculations do not faze our reality-challenged, powered-by-ideology governor, who hired Donna Arduin as his CFO, a supply-sider who applies Arthur Laffer’s Reagan-era “voodoo economics” that have been thoroughly debunked over the last 30 years. Let me spell out the argument: The only problem with so-called “job creators” is that they do not create jobs. When consumers have living-wage jobs, they buy goods; when they buy goods, the economy grows; when economic demand grows, employers hire workers, that is, “create jobs.” Through tax and social policy – sometimes going into debt (“deficit spending”) to stimulate demand — government jumpstarts the economy; only then do debt- and risk-adverse “job creators” react by increasing production by hiring workers. Empirically-proven Keynesian economics (1930s) trumps demonstrably false, wishful thinking, “trickle-down” neoliberal nostrums (1980s on).

Which is worse: Rauner’s shock and awe strategy? Or the fact that it has not been recognized, and criticized for what it is by DINOs, and the media? And related to this: why did people and the press let Rauner get away with his “squeaky clean” claims during the gubernatorial campaign given his documented business practices and philosophy? Why do people and the press let him get away with post-election “bringing ethics to government” and “reforming government” claims that are in fact class warfare and crony capitalism, nepotism and conflict of interest at their worst? It is not far off the mark to say, as one commenter does, that

Rauner is the same person who clouted his own daughter into one of the highest rated public schools in the state (with unionized teachers no less), wants to subject the rest of the state to a failed private charter school model.

Rauner is continuing his attempts to run Illinois government like he ran his private equity company: benefit himself and burn everyone else. His loose command of facts and radical disempowerment agenda is an attempt to put more power in the hands of rich people, like himself, who already have far too much.

Rauner, the same person who made $60 million in 2013, wants to drive down the wages and retirement security of women and African Americans and wants to keep low-income workers poor for an extended period of time.

Rauner, the same person who owns nine homes, refuses to address the real elephant in the room: Illinois’ insufficient and regressive revenue generation policies. Rauner’s approach is not to strengthen government at his “make or break time” but instead to break it and strip it for parts to be sold off to his rich corporate cronies.

Rather than reaching across the partisan aisle, Rauner is throwing Molotov cocktails. Responding to such a partisan, scorched-earth approach, News-Gazette editorial writer Jim Dey dishonestly urges “statesmanship” on both Democrats and Republicans. Surely, this is the first time dismantling the state has been called “statesmanship.”

UIUC budget cuts are “an opportunity for us to do other things as a state”

Downstate Republicans are keeling over after having drunk Rauner-the-Reamer’s Kool-Aid. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) is pleased that “This [budget cut to UIUC] is an opportunity for us to do other things as a state.” Dale Righter (R-Mattoon), whose district includes Eastern Illinois University, says “he would support many of Rauner’s budget proposals, including the reductions in higher education support.”

They may think again after they recover from their ideologically-induced hangover from drinking too much Tea Party brew. Among the Reamer’s proposals are cuts up to 20 percent to local governments. The majority-Democratic Champaign County Board has already passed a resolution opposing Rauner’s budget ideas 15-5, a resolution that split the nine Republicans present down the middle: five voting against, and four voting with the Democrats and against Rauner.

In Champaign, newly-elected mayor Deborah Frank Feinen was backed by the Champaign Chamber of Commerce, which pushes for downsizing government and tax breaks for the wealthy. As with some other conservatives and Republicans, Feinen describes herself as a “fiscal conservative” and “social moderate.” Yet these two positions are intrinsically contradictory. Think about it: social moderates believe in certain public sector programs which the private sector does not provide, because there is no profit to be made. When money is tight and budgets are cut, however, fiscal conservatism trumps funding social programs. Regarding Rauner’s proposed cuts to Champaign, “It’d be all well and good if the city’s share [for social programs] was completely restored,” Feinen says, “but without everybody in the community also being healthy budget-wise, that’s a problem.” Social problems are nice, but just not affordable, say Raunerite Republicans. So, just how will Mayor Feinen vote: the Republican party line, or her civic responsibility to the city?

Wise: “No, I haven’t” talked to Rauner about “devastating” cuts

UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise is in the same position. Rauner has proposed cutting next year’s higher education budget 31.5 percent, which means slashing UI $208 million, and reducing UIUC anywhere between $86 and $114 million. These cuts would take the UI system back to 1950s funding levels in inflation-adjusted dollars.

A presumptive Republican – Wise keynoted a Republican Congressman Rodney Davis event at the iHotel in Champaign last summer during his electoral campaign, and was a member of Rauner’s transition team — she appeared at an April 13 Senate Appropriations committee hearing on campus in her other role as Chancellor. Asked if she had talked to Rauner about his “devastating” cuts, she said “she had not had a personal conversation with the governor about the proposed cuts.”

2015 04 11 Rauner and Wise pass food boxes

Governor Bruce Rauner and Chancellor Phyllis Wise pass food boxes, Urbana, April 11, 2015.  One Facebook post commented, “That’s so fucked up he just cut funding for feeding the needy.”

Too bad she had not taken the opportunity to do so at a Rauner presentation January 29 at the iHotel – well before he announced his budget cuts in February when it might have made a difference. Too bad she did not take the opportunity two days before the Senate hearing when both volunteered at a food drive.  One hour volunteering at Wise’s salary ($549,069 plus $290,000 as Nike board member) cost her $403.40, while Rauner’s five minute stint at his 2012 earnings rate of $25,672/hour comes out to $2139.

Noblesse oblige trickle-down, like supply-side economics, is so much cheaper than actually providing government programs that feed people. “It is consistent with the neoliberal agenda that as governor, Rauner will continue to privatize and monetize the public sphere while attacking unions,” writes local activist David Green. “It is also predictable that Phyllis Wise will gladly lend assistance in this endeavor: In neoliberal parlance, ‘There is no alternative.’”

What is most serious about our worsening political polarization is that people are talking past one another. When critics argue against budget cuts — especially to social services — without raising revenue, Rauner acolytes respond that cuts are bad, but what are you going to do? For all too many, incessant, insistent attacks on government have convinced them that government is ipso facto bad, further delegitimizing it.

Increasingly, the one percent respond to the incontrovertible, continuing-to-pile-up evidence of income and wealth inequality – the worst in nearly a century – by blaming the 99 percent victims, and denigrating so-called “dependent” individuals receiving “government handouts” as if they are 3/5 citizens. Insidious competing narratives harden into fixed character traits pitting “passive” aid recipients refusing to accept “personal responsibility” against “active” corporate bosses who have known how to take advantage and get rich quick.

Welcome to Illinois, turn your clocks back 100 years

What passes for Rauner’s “financial acumen” actually amounts to cut now, pay more later, enrich me and my friends all the time. The real question is what are the DINOs going to do, how are they going to respond to Rauner — or, more precisely, how is power broker Michael Madigan? The Reamer’s “Turnaround Illinois” slogan amounts to “turn Illinois back.” Welcome to Illinois, turn your clocks back 100 years.

April 24, 2015


David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department

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