A lobbyist who works for a business-related organization asked me a question the other day that I’ve been hearing a lot lately: “Who’s going to be the stopper now?”
What he meant was, who in the legislative process can be counted on these days to help derail bills which are deemed hostile to business interests?
The reason for the question was pretty obvious. Before this year, the last time House Speaker Michael Madigan allowed a minimum wage increase through his chamber that he knew would be signed into law was 13 years ago. And that bill only increased the minimum wage by a mere 25 cents an hour each year for four years. This year’s legislation that he supported will raise the minimum wage by $2.75 an hour in just 12 months starting next Jan. 1 and then eventually go all the way up to $15 an hour.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker set the tone for the spring session by jamming that bill through both chambers and now business types are reeling and searching for a way to at least slow down the rest of this progressive train.
It may eventually happen on its own. Pritzker has a super-ambitious legislative agenda and legislators could simply grow weary. Anyone who’s been around this game a while has seen this play out time and time again.
But that most certainly isn’t the case now. Pritzker has the momentum and he knows it and appears intent on trying to use it to his full advantage.
The simple truth is, business groups lost the 2018 election. Badly. And elections have consequences.
Some folks had argued as far back as last summer that business leaders should step up and take a role in shaping the debate over a potential minimum wage increase.
The wage regionalization argument didn’t just come out of nowhere. It has its roots in a New York bill signed into law back in 2016 which put Upstate and the suburbs on a slower path to $15 an hour than New York City. And Illinois already has mandated regionalized pay scales within its prevailing wage laws. A case could be made that a system which works pretty well for workers in the trades should be good for all workers.
So, the argument went, force candidate Pritzker to address the regionalization concept whenever he traveled to Downstate campaign events. Inject the concept into the broader public debate early in the process, long before any final legislative plans were set in stone.
But that idea was ultimately rejected, either because the groups were dead-set against any minimum wage hike and were fully supporting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s re-election, or out of fear or inertia.
And then Pritzker won by 16 points and interpreted his victory as an overwhelming mandate for progressive change, rather than as others saw it: Yet another repudiation election inextricably connected to yet another national “wave.”
The most dejected Illinoisan on election night in 2016 wasn’t a Hillary Clinton supporter, it was Gov. Rauner. Up until then, he had privately bragged that the Democrats had better get used to having him around because Clinton was going to win and that surely meant a backlash in 2018 and he’d be re-elected.
And here we are. Speaker Madigan has not shown any willingness to at least overtly resume his role as the guy who would help out business interests in a pinch. Senate President John Cullerton is a liberal who believes in these things. And once a progressive bill gets to the governor’s desk, he’s gonna sign that thing as sure as you’re born.
If they’re going to have any success at beating back some of these bills, the business lobbyists will have to fully engage in the committee process rather than count on a single person to have their backs.
The simple fact is that some Democratic committee chairs could be more amenable to arguments than their committee membership.
And the governor’s inexplicable lack of legislative staff could work to the opponents’ advantage. Pritzker doesn’t yet have enough people on staff to read all these bills, let alone work them.
Most of the big stuff that gets a lot of attention and is prominently pushed by Pritzker is probably going to fly. Maybe not everything, but most. The rest of the progressive agenda will come down to endless fights in the trenches.
The left has enthusiasm, a governor and a favorable national political climate at its back. The other side has process experience and the natural fear of unknown consequences.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.