Every “State of” speech I’ve ever heard follows the same script:
- A recitation of accomplishments achieved since the previous speech;
- A shopping list of proposals to be addressed before the next one; and
- A reminder that those who stand in political opposition to those proposals will be held responsible if those proposals don’t get enacted.
Governor Rauner’s speech yesterday followed the script for the most part, and revealed some interesting insights.
The list of accomplishments, from new measures to reduce fraud to coordinating among agencies that provide care to those in need speak to a change in emphasis away from enacting programs merely for the sake of enacting programs to developing a more comprehensive management style that will hopefully provide savings down the road. While the biggest issues that confront Illinois remain, this move toward measuring outcomes as a function of the cost of inputs is a step forward.
Unfortunately, the shopping list of proposals for the coming year is the same as we heard last year. The most critical are pension reform and education funding.
We have yet to adopt true pension reform. While it’s a far cry from the defined contribution proposal that the Governor ran on, his move toward accepting the pension bill sponsored by Senate President Cullerton is a sign of compromise brought about by the realities imposed by the pension guarantee language in the Illinois Constitution. I’m not sure if Cullerton’s bill would pass Constitutional muster any more than the House bill that was passed in 2013, and if it doesn’t, we’re going to be another year down the road with no solution.
And it’s not just about the type of plan going forward. While Governor Rauner touched on it when he said that the State is obligated to pay $7.6 billion into its 5 plans this year, he didn’t explain what that does to the process of putting together a budget. That $7.6 billion is a full 24% of the state’s general revenue, and of that amount, almost $6 billion goes to pay the underfunded portion. If general revenues come in at $32 billion, only $26 billion is left for all other state programs. And this is supposed to go on until 2045. We can’t continue to do business that way.
If there’s one issue that motivates the average voter in McHenry County more than any other, it’s property taxes. Without education funding reform, our taxes are never going to come down.
While the governor laid out an ambitious plan to address school funding, there was one essential element missing from his plan: parents. His 10-point plan was long on benchmarks, school district flexibility, reduction of administrative cost and partnerships between schools and employers, but nowhere was there a proposal to give parents greater control over their own kids’ education.
I would like to have seen him embrace the Educational Choice Scholarship Program as is currently in place in Nevada, where parents get access to an account loaded with the level of state funding allocated to each child. Parents are then free to use that money for private schools, tutoring, online learning, transportation, extra-curriculars or home schooling, or any combination thereof that they determine is in the best interests of their children. We’re never going to achieve savings in education costs, and our property taxes are never going to go down until we stop calculating the cost to educate a kid and then give that money to a school district to spend according to its priorities and those imposed by the state.
The third element of the script was perhaps the most telling. If you read the transcript of the speech, you’ll see that the governor did not discuss the elephant in the room: the current budget impasse. Nor did he utter the words “Speaker Madigan”.
I think that by doing that, he did more to underscore the issue than if he had spent 20 minutes giving us a play by play account of how we got here, and by those 2 omissions, he clearly tied the budget impasse to the Speaker.
The Governor is not going to abandon his attempt to drive down the cost of doing business in Illinois, nor should he. From the standpoint of one living in a district that gave him a 68%-32% mandate to do what he said he’d do, I don’t think the people of McHenry County want him to back down, either. Unfortunately, he ran up against the rocks of a 71 seat super-majority led by Speaker Madigan, and the budget was the only leverage he had to get his proposals enacted. Madigan is more interested in politics than governing, and he’s a master at it. Had he lost 1 seat in his caucus in 2014, it’s no stretch to say that we’d probably have a budget today. Without saying so, Bruce Rauner made that very point.