By Matthew Besler
A year ago, Bruce Rauner ended 12 years of one-party rule in Illinois. Those 12 years capped off 40 years of Democrat rule in the Illinois General Assembly. As Governor Rauner took office, Illinois had a huge pile of unpaid bills; the worst-funded pension system in America; a struggling education system; and a ranking of 51 out of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) in providing services for the developmentally disabled. A year ago, powerful political leaders and the entrenched special interests that support them were unchecked and unabashed.
Today, we heard from a governor who has spent a year taking on challenges that most thought were politically untenable. Today, we heard from a governor who has chosen difficult conversations over glib talking points. Today, we heard from a governor who is moving forward on true government transformation, not stalling for political convenience. Today, we heard from a governor focused on improving results, not just spending more money.
Today, Illinois is in a better place than it was a year ago. Better, but not remotely good enough. The governor’s work – and ours – to improve the way Illinois operates at every level is just beginning. Some necessary reforms will take time and require a continued political shift of power, but others are immediately at hand.
Despite the budget impasse, the governor laid out several key reforms on which his administration and the General Assembly should be able to find common ground:
- Education Reform: The governor stated, “The key to rising family incomes, more high paying jobs, and a higher quality of life for everyone in Illinois is to have a high-quality, fully-integrated education system… To drive that result, we are committed to eliminating wasteful bureaucracy, putting more money into our classrooms and holding our schools accountable for results.” Illinois’ failure to reform its education system has hurt students. An evaluation by the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that nearly two-thirds of Illinois 4th graders in the state’s public schools do not perform at grade level in math or reading. It is encouraging that Governor Rauner recognizes that Illinois has an education system in which politicians and special interests have too much control, parents and teachers have too little, and students get lost in the shuffle.
- Commerce and Economic Development: The governor highlighted his commitment to the state’s economic development, with an emphasis on job creation and investment. Many believe the governor should just agree to a budget and leave his pro-business agenda items for another day, but that approach won’t work. In fact, Illinois just completed a four-year case study proving that. Illinois Democrats raised income taxes by 67 percent in 2011, and the tax increase was in place for four years. At the end of those four years, Illinois still has many of the same problems it had before the tax increase was passed. We still had a huge pile of unpaid bills. We still had the worst-funded pension systems in America. Our credit had been downgraded to the lowest in the nation. Illinois trailed most of the nation in the creation of jobs and opportunity. Governor Rauner is aiming to change that.
- Pension Reform: Governor Rauner has taken an important first step toward pension reform by championing a bill that received the full support and endorsement of our labor unions at the height of the pension debate. Illinois can’t save retirement benefits, social services or any other program without first resolving the pension crisis. And, the state cannot simply tax, borrow, or invest its way out of a $111 billion (and growing) pension liability. The crisis eats up 25% of every tax dollar that goes to Springfield. The truth is that without pension reform, the state cannot move forward and our severely underfunded pension system will swallow up the state budget.
At the Illinois Opportunity Project, we call on Illinois legislators to work with the governor in taking on these issues and the ones that are sure to come. We will be there to help every step of the way. Together, we must begin to foster the opportunity that will ultimately improve the lives of every Illinoisan. It is time to demonstrate the courage to finally transform Illinois in ways long imagined, but never realized.