Progressives push alternatives to raise revenue, solve fiscal crises

Photo by Yingxu Jane Hao

Protesters rally outside the Thompson Center to urge Gov. Bruce Rauner to “have a heart and end attacks on public services” on Feb. 14, 2017, the day before he delivered his third budget address.

Our state and our city are sliding deeper into crisis, and our political leadership shows no capacity to come up with solutions.  But progressive are stepping up with ideas and proposals representing real alternatives. Their challenge is finding traction in a dysfunctional political system.

So far, two announced Democratic candidates for governor, State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston and Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th Ward), are campaigning in support of a constitutional amendment to establish a graduated income tax.

Not only is it fair – it’s the only approach that will raise sufficient revenue to begin digging the state out of the hole that grows bigger every day that Governor Bruce Rauner blocks a resolution of the budget crisis.

It also represents a break from decades of Democratic leadership in the state, particularly of House Speaker Mike Madigan. For decades, Madigan has preferred borrowing from state workers’ pension funds to addressing revenue needs responsibly.

Rauner’s current rhetoric indicates he plans to run for re-election with two planks:  opposition to tax increases and opposition to Madigan.  Whoever gets the Democratic nomination is going to have to address the huge budget deficit and backlog of the state’s bills that Rauner has created.

Meanwhile a group of rank-and-file Democratic legislators stepped forward Wednesday with an Illinois Comeback Agenda touching on a range of issues and including a progressive income tax.  Other proposals from the group include rolling back Rauner’s action denying subsidized child care to low-income parents attending college; clawing back tax subsidies from corporations that ship jobs out of state; establishing a small-donor match system of campaign finance; and eliminating the cash bail system.

“People feel like whenever [legislators] look at policy issues, their first consideration is what the political leadership and special interests want,” said the group’s spokesperson April Leipsiger.  “We think the starting point should be what residents want and need, not what political leaders and their buddies want.”

In Chicago, the crisis is hitting the schools. The school board is considering shortening the school year by three weeks and eliminating most summer school.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called this option “unacceptable,” but his only solution has been to blame Springfield.

Before Wednesday’s City Council meeting, a coalition of community organizations, joined by members of the Chicago Teachers Union and several aldermen, called on Emanuel to find city funds to keep schools open and ensure a full summer program.  They want to see tax increment financing funds and revenue from city investments diverted to schools, and they want to see the corporate head tax reinstated.

A head tax could raise $100 million and would capture a small portion of the income earned by suburbanites who work in the city.  Ordinances from Ald. George Cardenas (12th) diverting TIF funds to schools and from Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) reinstating a head tax have been stuck in committee for months.

“Parents are scared,” said parent Maria Castillo, a member of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “If the mayor chooses to close the schools down early, we are going to see more shootings and violence on our streets…. Our kids need to be safe in school.”

It’s going to take lots more public pressure to break through the gridlock in Springfield and Chicago.  Political gridlock benefits the powerful – and increases income inequality – according to political scientists.  That’s certainly true in Springfield, where failure to extend the income tax increase two years ago saved Rauner and his rich donors millions of dollars, while the minimum wage remains at the same level it was in 2010.  In Chicago, the winners of City Hall’s inaction on TIF and the head tax are developers and corporations.

A quarter of a million people marched through the streets of Chicago on January 21 to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration.  Certainly the debacle of the Trump administration is fascinating.  But more of us who are thinking globally need to act locally.

As wave after wave of crises hit, that may be happening.  Student groups, senior organizations, and more than a dozen unions will be protesting Rauner’s fundraiser Thursday evening at the Chicago Hilton, calling on the governor to “do your job.”

While progressive politicians press for solutions in legislative bodies, progressives need to increase the pressure in the streets.