Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 


Everywhere I go, I hear the same question: What on earth is going on in Springfield? People can’t figure out why we have no budget, what the consequences are, whether our economic future is slipping away from us and what can be done about it all.

Sometimes they even go on to point out that surely something is wrong and in need of reform in Illinois, so it must stand to reason that we should enact Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agenda.

But until Massachusetts made a surprise appearance in his State of the State address last week, Rauner’s efforts at reform have focused on emulating anti-union policies enacted in very conservative states like Texas, South Carolina and Mississippi – and, more recently, states like Wisconsin that have undergone dramatic political change.

The Illinois General Assembly has rejected many of Rauner’s ideas, but media coverage of the ensuing budget stalemate largely has focused on political and personality disputes.

What this coverage neglects is that the underlying dispute is about economic philosophy and values between a Republican governor and a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Rauner and his supporters believe in a theory of economic growth that focuses on competitiveness, which to them means decreasing costs for businesses and decreasing wages and benefits for workers. Democrats believe in a theory of economic growth that invests in people and infrastructure while relying on rising wages to build a thriving middle class that then drives further consumption and growth.

Rauner has been slow to figure out that this is a genuine disagreement. It’s not a consequence of politics or coalitions or alliances. It’s one of deep, long-held beliefs. If he wants to make progress on these issues, he’ll have to – slowly – convince lawmakers he’s right, not just rely on political pressure.

But here’s the other thing. Rauner loves to talk about the economic success that Texas has experienced, and he has a point. Texas has had robust job growth, and its unemployment rate is only 4.7 percent – while Illinois’ is more than a point higher. These are achievements Texas should be proud of. But it must be noted that Mississippi has a higher unemployment rate than Illinois, and so do several other conservative states. Guess what else? Texas has a poverty rate of more than 16 percent – the fifth-worst in the country. Illinois’ poverty rate is 11.5 percent, putting us roughly in the middle of the pack.

In other words, although Texas’ achievements are real, they come at a huge cost: Lower wages, less regulation and a weaker safety net are causing poverty to rise and the middle class to shrink.

And while the anti-worker policies of the far right might have contributed to Texas’ record of mixed economic success, they obviously haven’t conferred the same benefits on all states where they’ve been tried. Yet they seem to have had the same costs.

On the other hand, the Democratic approach to economic growth mitigates poverty, raises wages and helps grow the middle class. What’s the unemployment rate in deep-blue Massachusetts? It’s 4.7 percent – the same as Texas.

And, by the way, some progressive states, such as Minnesota and Vermont, have unemployment rates that are far lower.

Rauner says Illinois needs reform. Democrats agree. I presume anyone who’s looked at our credit rating would agree. But reform doesn’t necessarily mean extreme anti-worker policies – policies that have been rejected by Democrats all over the country—that increase poverty without reliably creating job growth.

Instead, we need to look to economically successful states – Massachusetts, Minnesota and others – that have similar values and political traditions as ours in Illinois.

If we sit down, work together and study these examples, I am confident the General Assembly and Rauner can come together to craft a reform agenda that puts Illinois on a path to fiscal stability and enhanced economic vitality.

If the governor instead continues to insist on pretending Illinois can become an avatar of an ideologically motivated national right-wing agenda, then I fear we’re in for three more long painful years.

This op-ed originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business on Feb. 2.