* Governing has published a long piece by my old buddy Dan Vock entitled “Who Ruined Illinois?”…
However bad you think government might be,” Bruce Rauner tells an audience, “it’s worse.” Rauner, a Republican governor seeking reelection, has plenty of reasons to portray his state as fundamentally broken. It’s a way to explain why he hasn’t been able to make the big changes in Illinois he promised when he ran four years ago. But it’s also a great line for a knowing audience, and the crowd of call center workers in Moline, on the Mississippi River, laughs appreciatively.
Illinois voters have endured a lot from their state government. It hasn’t been just one recession or one administration that’s done the damage, either. It’s been nearly a generation of political upheaval and dysfunction at the state Capitol. “Springfield has not been working for them, and I think voters, residents of Illinois are frustrated and angry. They should be,” Rauner tells me after his Moline event. “Always unbalanced budgets. Not paying pensions. Not growing the economy and creating good-paying jobs. Massive corruption, cronyism and patronage. And four of my nine predecessors have gone to prison. It’s a broken system.”
Nearly everyone agrees with Rauner that the system is broken, but there’s no consensus about why the system is failing. Pick your favorite culprit — legislators, unions, pensions — and you may have a case. But the one thing that current and former elected officials, academics and Springfield insiders cite most is perhaps the most painfully obvious: “Illinois government did work,” says former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican who presided over what now looks to be the state’s heyday in the 1990s. “But then we had bad luck with a couple of governors.”
Illinois governors are powerful. They have many executive tools at their disposal that their counterparts in other states don’t possess. As chief executives, they have the biggest say on the state’s financial situation and the biggest platform to tend to the state’s economy. But over the last two decades, public confidence, financial stability and economic growth in Illinois have all suffered.
During that time, Illinois has had four governors: two Republicans and two Democrats. George Ryan came first, starting in 1999, and despite substantial achievements in Springfield, erased the public’s trust in state government with a corruption scandal that landed him in prison. Rod Blagojevich swept into power in the wake of Ryan’s scandal, promising reform and renewal, but exited in disgrace after an FBI arrest and subsequent impeachment trial, leaving a state woefully unprepared for the Great Recession. Illinoisans breathed a sigh of relief when Pat Quinn stepped in, but the relief died quickly, as a major tax increase failed to steady Illinois’ finances, and low-level patronage scandals undercut his reputation as a reformer. Rauner capitalized on Quinn’s unpopularity and defeated him in 2014. But Rauner saw his own standing collapse last year when rank-and-file GOP lawmakers abandoned his cause after a two-year budget standoff.
* It’s most definitely worth a read, but our troubles started far earlier than 1998.
Four crucial decisions were made during Gov. Jim Thompson’s tenure that we’re still feeling today: 1) 3 percent compounded pension COLA; 2) Exemption of retirement income from the state income tax; 3) Exemption of food and medicine from the state sales tax; 4) Reduced overall state support for K-12.
We vastly widened our spending base while greatly narrowing our revenue base. And by not adequately funding K-12 (because of that widening/narrowing), property taxes were forced up (which legislators responded to by approving exemptions, which made everyone else pay more). Not to mention that as the state was beginning to transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy, services were not (and still aren’t) taxed.
* I happen to admire Gov. Thompson very much and hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Way too many state pensioners in those days were dirt poor, so that 3 percent compounded interest was a lifesaver to many. Helping senior citizens every way possible was all the rage everywhere back then and they weren’t nearly the percentage of the population they are now, so the income tax exemption wasn’t as big a budget issue as it is today. Sen. Richard M. Daley fought hard for those very popular sales tax exemptions and overrode Thompson’s veto ahead of his first mayoral bid. And the state just didn’t have the money (until it approved a temporary tax hike) to adequately fund K-12.
Gov. Jim Edgar passed a bill to make the pension payments, but he backloaded the schedule until after he was safely out of office. Edgar famously left George Ryan with a billion-dollar surplus instead of putting that into the pension funds. Ryan spent that billion dollars almost before he finished taking the oath of office.
And none of the three governors since Ryan have managed to get a handle on our stark fiscal and economic problems.