When I first got down to Springfield after being elected state representative in 2013, I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” The mess in Springfield was worse than I could have imagined.
Politics in Illinois is something akin to a modern-day Tammany Hall, defined by cronyism, waste, mismanagement, and corruption. Two of our last four governors were convicted of crimes and went to prison — George Ryan for what became known as the “hired truck scandal” and Rod Blagojevich for attempting to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
So it was to no one’s surprise that Illinois politics made national news again last week. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a bill forcing taxpayers to fund abortion at any time, for any reason. His signature made Illinois the first state in the nation to enact such a law. Legislation not even contemplated by prior Democratic governors and legislatures was signed by a Republican.
The clichéd diagnosis is that Illinois is broken and that the problems are so great that we cannot overcome them without a political savior—someone who has achieved an elite status. This defective tendency illustrates the real problem in Illinois, and how we have come to hold a bottom rank in every economic indicator (highest property taxes in the nation, heaviest overall tax burden, lowest bond rating, highest unemployment in the Midwest). Far from being broken, Illinois is operating exactly as those in charge intended.
Illinois Is In the Midst of Financial Collapse
As my first term ended in 2014, the state was collapsing. Illinoisans were finally waking up, and not a minute too soon. We found hope in Rauner’s candidacy. He was a political outsider who promised to “Shake Up Springfield.” We were impressed with his business acumen and galvanized by his reformist mission. So we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he promised he had “no social agenda,” despite his generous donations to Planned Parenthood.
Since his inauguration, Illinois’ backlog of unpaid bills is higher. Our unemployment rate and unfunded pension liability remain bleak. Corruption and cronyism continue, as a single lobbyist connected to the Rauner administration secured 2,800 state contracts worth nearly $17 billion. And a budget impasse that put social service providers into crisis was ended by a massive tax hike with no structural reforms. This is what “working together” looks like in Illinois: submission to the agenda of the majority party and the entrenched interests who fund their campaigns.
Illinois politicians serve a constituency. It’s just not the families in their communities. They serve special interests who fund their campaigns: public-sector unions, crony capitalists, and other groups that feed on government.
What Other Rauner Promises Will We Find Were Lies?
Last April, Rauner publicly promised he would veto a bill that would force taxpayers to pay for abortions through all nine months of pregnancy. He lied. He signed the bill with a shrug of his shoulders, stating “I have always been pro-choice and I always will be.”
Meanwhile, Illinois is ranked 48th in the nation in providing for our developmentally disabled—people who through no fault of their own need state aid. Families and businesses in this state want resources applied efficiently to the numerous problems we already have. Yet Rauner committed our limited Medicaid dollars to highly controversial, elective medical procedures.
The decision was a slap in the face to every struggling family who put their trust in the reform governor with no social agenda. For Rauner, like the machine politicians before him, winning elected office was not about advancing a set of principles to spur transformative policy change. Winning office was a mechanism through which he could distribute goodies and favors to friends and allies of convenience, in this case Planned Parenthood.
The cost of this law could approach $20 million. In a state with presumptive eligibility for pregnant women to receive Medicaid, there is also a real possibility that Illinois taxpayers will pay for abortions of women from surrounding states who falsely claim to be residents. The state has had enormous problems in the past with high numbers of ineligible folks on Medicaid.
In all this drama, the families of Illinois are forgotten and left to pick up the tab. Already on the hook for the highest property taxes in the nation, many families face unemployment as businesses bleed into more friendly states. Other families are trying to keep their heads above water, having seen needed social services reduced or eliminated over the past three years. So, as pundits and pols rant and rave in the papers and on social media, too many families quietly pack up and leave. Even those who are doing well look at state politics and wonder why they would entrust their family’s future to these “leaders.”
Here is what Illinois families should know: While the concentrated power in Springfield seems daunting, the people have the collective numbers, resources, and values to end Illinois’ rigged political culture. Illinoisans deserve bold leaders, and in 2018, they can pick those leaders willing to fight for them to own a home in a safe community, to have access to quality schools, to be able to count on basic services when they are in need, and to have the opportunity to build their lives and pursue happiness.