The Democratic Machine Still Churns in Illinois

This article appeared in the Weekly Standard (Subscription required.)

While half of American voters have stomped through the Garden of Progressive Delights, Illinois is ever more shackled by insider deal-making, special interests of the liberal kind, and an autocratic Democratic machine. Case in point: As if organized labor hasn't wrung enough out of the nearly broke state, its largest and most radical public employee union is threatening a strike over demands that would add billions to Illinois's red ink.

House Fleecer Michael Madigan

House Fleecer Michael Madigan

It's as if Illinois, which gave President-elect Donald Trump a landside thrashing, was a country unto itself. Illinois voters not only gave Hillary Clinton a 16-percentage-point margin, they also dispensed with Republican incumbents Leslie Munger, the state comptroller; U.S. senator Mark Kirk; and Rep. Bob Dold, who represents the swing district on suburban Chicago's affluent North Shore. Illinois is a blue state bobbing on a sea of red.

Untouched, of course, was the autocratic and ultimate insider, Democratic representative Michael Madigan, who has been State House speaker for 28 years and the man most responsible for Illinois's dismal finances. While Republicans had a net gain in the election of two seats in the Senate and four in the House, enough for Madigan to lose his super majority, Democrats still retained large enough majorities to bedevil Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who was elected two years ago on—surprise!—a reform platform.

Rauner has been true to his word, seeking to, among many other things, freeze property taxes, restrict union bargaining power, authorize municipal bankruptcy, rein in frivolous lawsuits, reform the state's unemployment insurance and workers' compensation systems, and grant employees the "right to work." As a reward, his approval rating has dropped to 33 percent.

The reforms are intended to ease the punishing taxes and anti-business climate that have sent tens of thousands of Illinois residents and businesses rushing to the exits every year. Illinois is last in job growth among neighboring states and has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. Its worst-in-the-nation unfunded public pension liability is $129.8 billion, a three-fold increase from a decade ago. The backlog of unpaid bills is $10.7 billion and is expected to rise to $13.5 billion next year, to more than $20 billion by 2018, and to $47 billion in 2022.

The state's credit rating is the lowest in the nation and continues to slide toward junk bond levels. Illinois hasn't passed a full year's operating budget since July 2015. Instead, it has been slouching along on a stopgap budget that funds only "essential services" but has forced social service agencies to curtail or even halt what little they can provide the poor, elderly, and sick.

For more than a year, the Rauner administration has been trying to negotiate a new contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is one of Madigan's top campaign contributors and represents 40,000 state workers. While contracts were reached with other state employee unions, AFSCME, deploying a strike threat, demands increased benefits that would cost the state an additional $3 billion. A bipartisan state labor board now has ruled that talks are at an impasse, which allows Rauner to impose cost savings on the union. But a long legal battle is in the offing.

There's more, but why go on? If there ever was a swamp in need of draining, Illinois is it.

Think that Wisconsin's Scott Walker had it tough contending with protestors who seized his state Capitol as he tried to whittle down organized labor's big stick? You haven't seen anything yet, as Rauner battles to keep Illinois from committing seppuku.

As a bargaining chip to get negotiations moving toward a balanced budget, Rauner has proposed an income tax increase—a Democratic demand—from its current modest level if Madigan would accept some reforms. Hoping to induce Madigan to compromise, Rauner has backed off many of the original reforms in his 44-item "Illinois Turnaround" agenda, basically leaving on the table only workers comp and pension reforms, a local property tax freeze, and a term limit on state lawmakers.

Still, Madigan has shown no sign of budging. He demands a "clean" budget that has no reforms. Instead, Madigan and his special interests spend more time blaming Rauner for the stalemate and crafting a campaign to beat Rauner in 2018. They had been encouraging Democrat Dick Durbin to run, but apparently he'd prefer to remain the number-two Democrat in the U.S. Senate than take on his state's inextricable problems. Wise choice, that. And thanks to Madigan's imperial style, the Democrats have few, if any, promising and fresh faces to run.

Rauner's advocacy of a 10-year term limit on legislators is an obvious attempt to remove the state's most intractable problem—Madigan himself. For 45 years, the speaker has successfully run in a safe district full of Chicago and state payrollers that the speaker has carved out for himself as the lord of the state's decennial redistricting.

Madigan, the state Democratic chairman, keeps a firm hand on his minions by controlling campaign funding that organized labor funnels to its loyalists through him. As Chicago Democratic representative Ken Durkin ruefully discovered when he failed to strictly follow Madigan's orders, even a Democratic incumbent showing some independent thought can find himself facing and getting defeated by a Madigan-sponsored and labor-backed opponent in the party's primary election.

You'd be hard pressed to find a more well-established insider than Madigan. But he's not just a powerful insider; he's also a rich man. His law business makes a bundle specializing in appealing property tax assessments for wealthy clients. It doesn't hurt that the appeal is brought before an obscure board run by a Madigan protégé. Nor will it hurt that Chicago and its schools recently passed big property tax increases to prop up underfunded government employee pension funds, driving more business Madigan's way.

Illinois remains the only Midwest blue state, complete with all the deficit spending, political correctness, self-righteousness, and everything else a progressive agenda implies. It's as if Illinois voters have a compulsion to feed themselves into the maw of the Democratic machine. How deplorable is that?

Read why Americans need to learn about the nation's most ignored war.

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