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Opinion: Repair damage to Illinois, and avert more

The state of the State of Illinois, notwithstanding Gov. Bruce Rauner’s words on the topic, is abysmal. And that’s putting it charitably.

If you are a home health care worker facing layoff and worried about the welfare of your clients, if you need addiction or mental health counseling, if you need help with utility bills and the state says the money is gone, if you are a state employee being told to brace for a first-ever strike, or if you just want a mailed reminder when your license plates need renewal, other adjectives might come to mind. The state of the state is ruthless, perhaps. Short-sighted. Disorganized. Hostile to the middle class.

OPINION

It didn’t have to be that way. A year ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner opened his administration with a State of the State address that promised bipartisanship and a shared commitment to progress. His words would be funny now if they didn’t ring so false.

“Today marks a new beginning for Illinois,” Rauner said. “And a new partnership between the General Assembly and the governor. Last November, voters made it clear they want bipartisan government. They want a government where people come together to solve problems and get things done.”

Some partnership. While Rauner publicly ridicules his opposition without finding time to talk with them, the state’s $111 billion pension deficit swells, the stack of unpaid bills resumes its rise and public universities, cut off from state funds, plunge toward a full-bore crisis. One, Chicago State, is threatening closure. Rauner signed an education budget to open elementary and high schools last fall, but most districts are in financial trouble and resort to deficit spending. They will need a governor who acts like a grownup.

The rest of the goals Rauner laid out a year ago read like an anti-union polemic: Let voters decide what’s subject to collective bargaining, eliminate mandatory union membership in local government, scrap prevailing wage requirements in public works, let localities make union membership optional and bar public worker unions from donating to state candidates. None of this has advanced, but Rauner’s insistence on anti-union measures that mean little to government spending has left the state without a budget for seven months, led to selective funding by judicial order and poisoned the well for his other initiatives that might be achievable, such as worker’s compensation reform or consolidating units of local government. By letting income-tax rates decline during their standoff, Rauner exploded the state’s fiscal condition and made bond investors wary.

Rauner’s first year is a record of failure, written in his own hand. On the campaign trail, he called for a state that was “compassionate” and “competitive.” He has delivered “cruel” and “dysfunctional.” Businesses have noticed.

Last Friday, the Illinois Department of Employment Security said the state has endured two straight months of job losses and the unemployment rate edged higher for the first time since February 2013. It stood at 5.9 percent in December. Illinois had been on a stretch of steady job growth. In 2014, it saw a precipitous drop in its unemployment rate.

Jeff Mays, the head of the agency announcing the news, recognized its importance. “For the first time since 2009, Illinois ended a year with fewer jobs than when we started,” he said. “Even as the nation gained more than 2.6 million jobs in 2015, Illinois lost 3,000.”

With another governor, conservatives would shriek over results like that. Could it be that their argument that the lower the tax rates, the better, doesn’t wash? Or that states should bust labor standards to create more working poor? Companies and entrepreneurs say all the time that they really want stability in taxing policies and leaders who listen and move forward, without holding the neediest hostage in winner-take-all games

There is time to repair the damage and avert more. Next year’s State of the State must be settled not by bumbling and overreach, but by a governor who rises to a new level: the common decency of the people.

David Roeder is a Research Fellow at Innovation Illinois, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to progressive public policies that advance equitable economic growth. He was a longtime business writer and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and served Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

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