What Illinois can expect from Bruce Rauner

Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan for Illinois targets workers.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan for Illinois targets workers.

We’ve now survived an election characterized by vast amounts of money spent mainly on negative advertising, with little more than bumper-sticker slogans aimed at the state’s critical problems.

Though he didn’t emphasize them, at least Pat Quinn had staked out positions on the state budget and pension crisis.  Bruce Rauner spent the entire campaign avoiding talking about the specifics of his program.

For example, when the Latino Policy Forum sent a detailed questionnaire to Rauner’s campaign, it didn’t respond.  That was “part of an overall strategy of being very limited around getting into policy specifics,” said Martin Torres, LPF’s senior policy analyst.

For a straight-talking non-politician, Rauner, who declared victory last night in the gubernatorial race, has seemed increasingly shifty.  He wouldn’t explain how he’d cut taxes and simultaneously increase education spending, or shift state workers into 401(k) plans and still pay off the state’s pension debt.  At the beginning of the campaign, he spoke out of at least two sides of his mouth about the minimum wage; at the end, he was playing both sides of the abortion issue.

Now it’s time for the mystery man to reveal himself.

Depending on whether Quinn and the legislature decide to act in the interim, Rauner’s first decision may be whether or not to veto a minimum-wage increase.  That could be an indication as to which Bruce Rauner we’ve elected governor.

The next question is what to do about the income tax rate.  He’s said it will have to be extended.  Will he push a bill to bring it down by steps?  If he does, will the legislature pass it?

Having attacked House Speaker Michael Madigan relentlessly, Rauner now has to figure out what kind of relationship he wants with him.  Don’t rule out some kind of rapprochement.  As Rich Miller pointed out a year ago, Rauner and Madigan understand the politics of money.  “They speak the same language.”

He’ll soon learn that being governor is not like being a CEO, where you give orders and people jump to it.  Whatever it is he wants to do — slash the budget, amend the constitution in order to slash pensions, let counties set up union-free “right to work” zones — he can’t do it without the legislature.  He may even come to find that state government doesn’t work without state workers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel could benefit from having a friend in the governor’s mansion, especially if he tries to move forward with a Chicago casino. Quinn vetoed a 2012 gambling expansion bill that would have given Chicago a casino, saying the plan to let the city regulate the casino was insufficient.  Rauner has said decisions on gambling locations should be up to local governments.

That won’t sit too well with legislators representing areas that have the rest of the state’s casinos, which have seen revenues drop, even before video poker games were legalized in bars.  And with four casinos closing in Atlantic City just this year — where gambling revenue has dropped by one-half since 2006 — casinos no longer seem to be the wave of the future.  If they ever were.

Campaign financing needs fixing

One major, underlying issue in the election — deserving much more serious attention than it gets — is the role of money in our political system.  With spending by the two candidates likely to top $100 million, this year’s race is twice as expensive as the 2010 election.  Rauner’s campaign fund is twice as large as Quinn’s (who’s relied much more heavily on independent expenditure groups). The difference is entirely accounted for by Rauner’s $27 million and nearly $5 million he got from Ken Griffin, the state’s wealthiest billionaire.

“We have a fundamental corrupting influence on our electoral system, because it forces politicians to rely on private interests and the ultrawealthy to fund their campaigns,” said David Melton, executive director for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.  “That gives private interests a very cheap way of purchasing politicians and buying influence.”

One factor is the concentration of wealth at the top, which gives the very rich more money to play with, said Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

In Melton’s view, the governor’s race undercuts the legal theory behind Supreme Court decisions removing regulations on campaign financing.  “It proves that money does not equal speech — it simply enables more mudslinging commercials that go for the lowest common denominator and don’t engage in real discussion of the issues.”

Illinois passed contribution limits for the first time in 2009 — with loopholes for legislative leaders and exceptions when self-funded candidates pour in the money — but “that was envisioned as the first step,” Redfield said.  Then came a series of Supreme Court decisions undermining such laws, most notably Citizens United in 2010.  As it turns out, “until we get a different Supreme Court, [the 2009 law] is going to be the last step,” Redfield said.

Some groups are pushing for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, but that’s a steep climb.  Fifty-three U.S. senators recently voted for such an amendment, far short of the needed two-thirds margin but still a remarkable number.

In terms of immediate progress, Redfield said Illinois has very strong disclosure requirements, but these could be strengthened for independent expenditure groups, and campaign funds could also be required to conduct yearly audits.

It’s imperative to move toward public campaign financing, said Melton, and one way would be with a system that matched small donations.  Candidates who demonstrated support by raising a significant number of donations up to $100 from voters in their districts would qualify for matching public funds up to a certain level.

That would help level the playing field and allow candidates to mount viable campaigns without selling their souls to the highest bidder. The system is working well in a dozen states and a number of municipalities, including New York City, Melton said.

Various reform groups are building support for this approach by home-rule units in Illinois, Melton said, with ICPR working in Oak Park and Evanston and the League of Women Voters downstate.

With another big-bucks mayoral campaign approaching, voters should ask candidates where they stand on getting money out of politics.

Drives register new voters

While the gubernatorial candidates traded attacks on each other, community and advocacy groups have had a different agenda — registering thousands of new voters with a focus on issues, particularly the minimum wage.

Every Vote Counts, a coalition of 50 local groups, registered 115,000 new voters in Chicago and Cook County — about 70 percent of them inside the city — according to Executive Director Alexandra Sims.  It was the largest nonprofit voter registration drive in the nation, she said, and focused on low-income communities, people of color and young people.

Latino Policy Forum registered “significant numbers” of new Latino voters, said senior policy analyst Martin Torres.  Brighton Park Neighborhood Council registered 6,000 new voters on the Southwest Side, particularly the 12th, 14th and 15th Wards, according to Executive Director Patrick Brosnan.   In nine South and West Side wards, Action Now signed up 19,000 new voters, Executive Director Katelyn Johnson said.

A couple thousand new voters in a ward can make a huge difference in an aldermanic election — and potentially in citywide contests.

The organizers have followed up with the folks they registered to make sure they get out to vote. “There are thousands of people across the city working to get out the vote,” Amisha Patel of Grassroots Action Illinois said Tuesday, while the polls were still open.  If turnout this year was down overall, there are certainly thousands of new voters in low-income communities of color who are part of a different dynamic.

“The plan is to keep up the energy and momentum heading into the municipals,” Patel said.

Email Curtis Black at cblack.tcr@gmail.com

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