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Bruce Rauner’s Agenda: Working With (and Around) Democrats and Unions

The new governor’s criminal justice-reform proposals could be popular with his opponents, while his controversial “employee empowerment zones” will be a tough sell with the courts.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

In a short state-of-the-state speech free of rhetorical flourish and pronounced gerunds—or much direction for how he will address the state’s perilous finances—new governor Bruce Rauner announced: “In our agenda, each of you will probably see some things you don’t like. But each of you will certainly see many things that you like a lot.”

And… this is probably true. Well, it’s literally true, given how this line went: “Our Economic Growth and Jobs Package increases the minimum wage to $10 an hour [applause] over the next 7 years [awkward, incredulous laughter].”

But it’s probably true beyond that. Rauner continued to be shy of fiscal specifics, but some of the specifics were intriguing and likely amenable to Democrats.

For instance, Rauner talked on the campaign trail about prison reform, something which drew interest from some Democrats, even progressive Democrats—the possibility that the state could have a more effective and humane criminal justice system while cutting back on its scope and expense.

Of course, Quinn’s cutbacks to the state prison system likely killed him with downstate Democrats, where Rauner made big gains despite losing to Kirk Dillard there in the Republican primaries.

And perhaps Rauner has found a way to thread that needle:

The conditions in our prisons are unacceptable. Inmates and corrections officers alike find themselves in an unsafe environment. We will hire more correctional officers to improve safety in our prisons.

This is interesting. Correctional officers are represented by AFSCME, a strong union in the state that both fought Pat Quinn’s prison cutbacks and poured money into the campaign against Rauner. In November, the Washington Post’s Lydia DePillis went to East Moline to survey the damage:

“Tough week,” said Johnson, who had just retired from three decades working in the supply room of a local prison, where he serves as president of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees local chapter. His state, after all, had just elected Bruce Rauner –a multimillionaire investor who campaigned on the idea that “government union bosses” were sucking the state dry with their salaries and pensions –as its next governor.

“I just left the facility today, and they’re all worried we’re going to close within the next few months,” said Johnson. His $60,000-per-year pension seems safe, but he doesn’t feel he can assure the next generation of workers anything close to that level of security. “I can’t really put their minds at ease.”


Over the years, the inmate population at East Moline has increased, with more inmates housed in each cell. It’s also dealing with more mentally ill prisoners, because of the closure of several mental health facilities. Johnson maintains the prison is understaffed and has tried to push for higher staffing levels — which means more jobs for members — on the grounds of health and safety.

So Rauner’s idea addresses the complaints of prison employees while, in theory, boosting government hiring in economically depressed downstate communities. And complaints about understaffing aren’t limited to the prison employees and their union. The prison watchdogs at the John Howard Association have been sounding the alarm:

This time, the dismal review was of the Menard Correctional Center, but its authors, a prison monitoring team from the John Howard Association, could have been writing about any of Illinois’ prisons. In fact, in earlier reports, the venerable prison reform group routinely has documented similar conditions throughout the state’s correctional system, which for years has been trying to cram close to 50,000 inmates in facilities designed for slightly less than 34,000.


“The response of Illinois elected officials to the crisis in prison overcrowding has been to strain correctional facilities further — by slashing DOC’s budget, eliminating education, treatment and rehabilitative services for inmates, suspending meritorious good time credit and reducing prison staffing levels — all the while doing nothing to reduce the population,” they charged in the Menard report.

And reducing the prison population is another issue Rauner touched on:

We will also continue to invest in Adult Redeploy. Since its implementation in 2011, Adult Redeploy has diverted more than 1,900 offenders into community-based programming.

According to the state, about 60 percent, or almost 14,000, of the 24,000 people who went into the state prison system in 2013 would be eligible for Adult Redeploy if it was available statewide. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear these ideas coming from Rauner, after his appointment of the JHA’s John Maki to his administration:

They are smart, thoughtful, competent people whose vision of juvenile justice and the criminal justice system is balanced and appropriate, and very cognizant of public safety but also understanding incarceration is not the answer,” said Julie Biehl, a law professor at Northwestern University and director of the Children and Family Justice Center, about Maki and Jones. “They understand all of the issues regarding the need for reform, and they are wonderful choices.”

But Rauner challenged unions as well:

Approximately 80% of individuals in Illinois apprenticeship programs are white even though Caucasians make up fewer than 63% of our population…. We should require unions that contract with the state to have their apprenticeship programs reflect the demographics of Illinois communities, and to have their membership on public construction projects reflect the diversity in the surrounding area.

Thus far, Rauner’s actions consists of an executive order requiring those unions to report the data, as Kim Geiger reported last month; that got a tip of the hat from Kwame Raoul. Which is not surprising; it’s an issue that goes back well into Chicago’s past. In 2004, a lengthy Tribune investigation found that representation of blacks in the trades had actually fallen over the previous decade. Rauner’s speech indicates that his actions will go further after the data comes back.

Seemingly less progressive, perhaps, is Rauner’s litany on property taxes: Over the past decade, the average property tax bill has increased nearly 33 percent! [Ed. note: the exclamation mark is in the prepared text.] …Illinois’ high property taxes have skyrocketed because state and local governments have been unable or unwilling to control their own spending.

But there’s something interesting going on here as well. In his Bring Back Illinois blueprint, Rauner emphasized the state’s disparities in funding education, disparities that are driven by the state’s unusually heavy reliance on property taxes to fund public education and the comparatively small amount that comes from the state, generally the lowest in the country. Here’s a graph from that presentation.

Which sets up an interesting dynamic:

There is a vast difference in property values amongst Illinois’ school districts. Because districts receive most of their dollars from local property tax revenues, this means property-rich districts have the opportunity to collect more money for schools. Wealthier districts tend to have lower tax rates than poorer districts. For example, New Trier Township High School District 203, which includes the suburban towns of Winnetka and Northfield, has more than 10 times the local property wealth of Springfield, yet Springfield’s tax rate is more than three times higher.

Illinois property taxes are high, in large part, because they bear most of the burden for school funding in the state. If Rauner puts these two pieces together, it could be the impetus for finally changing the state’s school-funding formula—and Rauner’s Bring Back Illinois blueprint gives Democrats the leverage to address school-funding equity.

Not all of Rauner’s proposals will appeal to Democrats, such as “employee empowerment zones,” essentially localized right-to-work areas: We must also empower voters to decide for themselves whether they want their communities to become employee empowerment zones.

But it gives a sense of how Rauner could approach proposals that will face resistance in a Democratic legislature—taking them straight to voters. He could do it by following Kentucky’s lead, where counties are adopting their own right-to-work laws with the help of conservative organizations like ALEC and the Heritage Foundation:

A right-to-work law became a major issue in Kentucky’s midterm elections when Republicans, who control the State Senate, promised to pass one if they gained control of the House. They fell short of that goal, priming local officials like Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, the elected head of Warren County, to act.

“We’ve always been interested in promoting right to work, and as all of our states around us became right to work, it has become a competitive issue,” Mr. Buchanon said, asserting that many businesses would not even consider locating in areas without right-to-work laws. He added that he was put in touch with Protect My Check by Senator Paul or one of his aides and was promised that the county’s legal bills would be covered.

The legal bills would be those incurred when the issue almost certainly goes to federal court, or even the Supreme Court, where it would seem like a longshot. ALEC has been pushing regional and local right-to-work laws for awhile now, but it’s a very uphill push: it relies on including cities or counties under the definition of “territories” in the “states and territories” exemption. Which is a bit of a stretch. So Rauner can try, with Kentucky breaking the trail, but I wouldn’t wait up for it.

So there you have it. Of the specifics Rauner offered, there’s a fair amount that should be of genuine interest to the Democratic-controlled legislature. The most controversial proposal, employee empowerment zones, is something of an end-around, but it seems unlikely to come to fruition without a protracted legal fight, if ever. Until then, there’s a lot to work on, and seemingly things to agree on.


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