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Rauner Holds the Cards

eye on the news

Rauner Holds the Cards

The Illinois governor should keep telling voters who broke the state’s finances—and forge ahead with his reform agenda. November 12, 2015
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Midwest Master of Urban Disaster—otherwise known as the Chicago Teachers Union—is at it again. The CTU threatens to strike if the Chicago Public Schools system, facing a $480 million deficit, institutes significant budget cuts. The 30,000–member union wants the Illinois state legislature instead to bail out a bloated, deeply mismanaged education system with hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding. Democrats in Springfield seem to have forgotten about the CTU’s ruinous eight-day strike in 2012, which made the schools’ budget woes worse and undermined school-reform efforts. First-year Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s critics, including some Republicans, are urging him to pass a budget and other funding legislation before pursuing his ambitious reform agenda.

Here’s a better idea: Rauner, a Republican, should remind voters that the teachers’ union and its allies have helped make Illinois the worst-governed state in the country over the last two decades. The state has built up such staggering long-term obligations—not only in Springfield but also in institutions like the CPS—that it will take years of proper fiscal management to undo the damage. Some have suggested that Rauner, by linking funding with reform, is the one threatening fiscal chaos, and that his proposals threaten the most vulnerable, especially schoolchildren. Rauner should point out in response that Illinois’s finances and those of its municipalities are already broken and that the CPS hasn’t paid its bills or adequately educated the city’s children for years.

Rauner isn’t naïve about how politics works in the Land of Lincoln. He knows that the only way to achieve meaningful change is to withhold from the political mobs that run the state capital the one thing that matters to them—money. He’s also smart enough to understand that a politician elected on a reform platform never has a better mandate for action than during his first year in office.

With that in mind, Rauner proposed sweeping modifications to state and municipal policies, including many that had nothing specifically to do with the state budget. He has pushed for reductions in Illinois’s ruinously high workers’-compensation costs (50 percent above those of neighboring Indiana), for empowering municipalities to opt out of collective bargaining on issues including employee health-care benefits and outsourcing of work to private contractors, and for an end to agreements that force localities to pay union-level wages for all construction projects. He has advocated for tort reform, supported creating a path to bankruptcy for municipalities seeking it, and proposed that local taxpayers vote directly on property-tax increases.

Rauner has also pledged to help struggling local governments—but only after they first agree to help themselves. In Chicago, that would mean making cuts in school-administration costs and closing half-empty schools in a city where the student population is declining. A more radical reform that Rauner hasn’t yet proposed but perhaps should consider: moving Chicago toward an all-choice, all-charter public school system, as New Orleans has done.

Critics howl that Rauner should have fixed the budget before insisting on reforms, but giving politicians in Illinois what they want first and then expecting them to support change is a losing strategy. Democrats think that they can outlast Rauner. They hope that he’ll cave when money runs out for some state services and then, eventually, for local services—especially schools. But Rauner can turn this strategy on its head. So many Illinois communities are so desperate for cash—Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recent $543 million property tax increase, for instance, still isn’t enough to balance the city’s budget—that it is Rauner, not the business-as-usual, anti-reform crowd, who holds the cards.

A successful businessman serving in elected office for the first time, Rauner should continue acting as a politician who doesn’t need the job. It may take some time before the professional politicians who run Springfield can believe that anyone would risk his political popularity over a few hundred million dollars in extra spending. Once they realize that Rauner means business, however, they will become terrified of the reform-minded governor—if they aren’t already.

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