Editorial: Who’s the real middle class champion?

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Gov. Bruce Rauner

The thing to remember about Gov. Bruce Rauner is this:

He ain’t kiddin’.

On Tuesday, Rauner announced some $400 million in cuts to state services, and nothing about those cuts said he is bluffing. The cuts are, on the contrary, precisely the sort of painful but realistic reductions he will have to make — along with plenty more — if the Legislature will not work with him.

EDITORIAL

Rauner came into office vowing to “shake up” Springfield, which is why we endorsed him, and this is what a shake-up looks like. He is right to demand basic pro-business reforms before he will even talk about raising taxes to fill a budget hole of more than $3 billion. No sense putting good money after bad. Nobody should doubt he will continue to chop away if he and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership cannot find common ground.

Rauner is prepared to be the bad guy. He has made that clear. He is determined to push through at least some of the reforms he believes are necessary for the long-term revival of Illinois, and he clearly won’t settle for yet another politically expedient short-term fix. Illinois has seen enough of that.

The thing to remember about Rauner’s Democratic opposition, especially House Speaker Michael Madigan, is this:

They are kidding.

For 30 of the last 32 years, Madigan has been Speaker of the House — and how’s that worked out for Illinois? For people to put their bets on Madigan and his allies again, regardless of any specific policy differences they may have with Rauner, doesn’t make sense.

Illinois’ unemployment rate in April was 6 percent, higher than the national average of 5.4 percent and far higher than the average in all other Midwest states. Population growth in Illinois is stagnant as young people pick up and leave to find work. The state’s business climate is consistently ranked among the worst in the nation. Two years ago, the state’s bond rating fell to the very worst in the nation. And the state’s billions of dollars in red ink — in large part due to pension obligations that the Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled the state cannot duck — threaten to gut the entire government.

So, yes, change would be good. And Bruce Rauner is all about change, which is why he was elected. And Mike Madigan, who was first elected Speaker the year McDonald’s introduced the McNugget, is all about no change. Why should anybody believe he’s not digging us a deeper hole?

Rauner’s first round of threatened cuts are being dismissed as a scare tactic, but it looks to us like a real plan. Don’t think for a moment he won’t go through with it, and much more.

The governor has targeted financial incentives for businesses as well as aid to the elderly and families. He would close juvenile detention centers. He would ground the state’s planes. He would shelve plans for the Illiana Expressway. He would close five state museums.

Some of these cuts might make sense in any event. What would be wrong with cutting back on state government air travel? Or shelving the Illiana, which, as we wrote recently, should not be built until a third airport is underway?

Other cuts, such as closing museums, would be more painful, putting people out of work. Still other cuts, such as suspending a program that helps poor people pay for winter heat, would be cruel.

On Tuesday, a group of Senate Democrats countered Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda by announcing a “Middle-Class Agenda” that is long on crowd-pleasing gift-giving. It calls for a new tuition tax credit, a higher minimum wage, free community college, and guaranteed paid sick leave for all workers in the private sector, even those who work only part time.

None of these ideas is necessarily bad. They merit consideration. But, once again, how would Illinois foot the bill? Except for a call to close “corporate loopholes,” nothing in the Democrats’ plan even hints at the sad truth that our state is broke.

Which is precisely how we got here, people.

Who is the real champion of the middle class? A Legislature seemingly bent on playing the same old game that has driven Illinois into the ground? Or a governor who really has no enthusiasm for cutting heat subsidies for the poor, and who is prepared to raise taxes when all is said and done, but who understands that Illinois is in desperate need of more fundamental reform?

If the Legislature does not work with Gov. Rauner, our state is in for nothing but further decline.

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