The election was a triumph for Illinois Democrats and a disaster for Prairie State Republicans, with Democrats gaining super majorities in both the Illinois House and Senate. But what progressive policy will emerge from Springfield’s new make up is hard to discern.
The election was a triumph for Illinois Democrats and a disaster for Prairie State Republicans, with Democrats gaining super majorities in both the Illinois House and Senate.
The super majorities plus control of the governor’s mansion means “an opportunity to build a progressive majority and achieve important things for the people of Illinois,” according to Gov. Pat Quinn’s spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
But what progressive policy will emerge from Springfield’s new make up is hard to discern. The agenda after the election looks like it did before November 6, with the focus on paying down the state’s unfunded pension liability. Moreover, Quinn and Speaker of the House Mike Madigan will likely continue to seek Republican cooperation on key legislative items, including pensions.
Triumph At The Polls
Democrats picked up seven seats in the House to give them a 71-47 advantage over Republicans, and five seats in the Senate for a whopping 40-19 edge starting on January 9 when new legislative members are sworn in.
Part of the big election day for Illinois Democrats undoubtedly stems from a shrewd and controversial remapping of state legislative districts, a post-2010 U.S. Census process executed by Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats.
Even Madigan spokesman Steve Brown acknowledges that the remap “might have brought some groups of people together” before adding that, “you still needed high-quality candidates” to turn previously Republican seats over to Democrats.
Another factor was the growing Latino vote. Rich Miller, of Capitol Fax, points out in the Southtown Star that Latino voters were 12 percent of Illinois' total electorate this year, compared to one percent just 20 years ago. The overwhelming majority of such voters went Democrat: Miller notes that 81 percent of Illinois Latino voters chose to re-elect Barack Obama president.
As with Republicans on the national level, the Illinois GOP is doing soul-searching about how to attract Latinos and generally expand their base of reliable voters. Unlike, however, national policies such as support for comprehensive immigration reform, it is unclear on the state level how the Democrat’s consolidation of power or the GOP’s effort to build their base translates into new legislation.
Lack of a Progressive Agenda
After the 2002 elections, Democrats gained and have maintained control the General Assembly and governor’s mansion since Rod Blagojevich took office in 2003. Yet since he replaced the impeached Blagojevich in January of 2009, Quinn, along with the General Assembly, often co-opted GOP ideas in writing their most consequential legislation.
Part of the reason for this is the massive fiscal problems that Quinn inherited. “The Democrats are not dividing up a bunch of goodies,” says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “They are taking things away.”
The fiscal situation spurred Quinn and the General Assembly to introduce a two-tiered pension system in 2010, reducing the benefits of future public employees. Budget anxiety also lead to this year’s package of Medicaid reforms that included $1.6 billion in annual cuts to the health care program for the poor, elderly and disabled.
The one truly partisan piece of fiscal legislation was a temporary personal and corporate income tax increase in January 2011, which is scheduled to expire in 2014.
Democrats, though, did not follow up the temporary hike with tax reform, such as a graduated, progressive income tax or expanding the number of items subject to a sales tax. While there is talk of making the 2011 tax increases permanent, party leadership has not mentioned a broader overhaul of tax policy.
Also, many big legislative items not dictated by fiscal realities, such as a landmark 2011 education law pushed by national education reform groups, were also politically centrist.
Charlie Wheeler, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield, argues that Madigan “wants his members to vote in a way that gets them re-elected”, not in a way that pushes a particular policy agenda.
There have been some relatively bold items, such as 2010 legislation that legalized same-sex civil unions, written by State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago). Harris has written a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and he says that a “new, younger group of representatives will be more open to the idea” of gay marriage legislation in the reconfigured General Assembly.
Another legislative item that may benefit from the super majority is a bill sponsored by State Sen. Kim Lightford (D-Chicago) to raise the minimum wage, a proposal that has Cullerton’s support.
However, Cullerton, Madigan, and Quinn have not mentioned specific legislative items they would like to see beyond sweeping pension legislation.
The Pension Dilemma
Springfield’s most painful decision remains finding a solution to the state’s approximately $85 billion public employee pension shortfall that does not run afoul of the state constitution, which prohibits the diminishment of contractually-guaranteed retirement benefits.
Quinn spokeswoman Anderson says that “comprehensive pension reform” is “our immediate priority, to both save the pension system and prevent out-of-control pension costs from eating up critically-needed revenue for education and social services.”
Pension legislation is also Cullerton’s clear top priority, according to spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon. Messages to GOP House leader Tom Cross of Oswego and Republican Senate leader Christine Radogno were not returned.
Madigan spokesman Brown sees legislation that fell apart in May as a starting point for a bipartisan pension bill. “You really need a bipartisan bill,” Brown says. “I don’t think you will find consensus from one caucus.”
However, that legislation failed precisely because of Cross and the GOP’s opposition to shifting the costs of educator’s pensions from the state to universities and school districts.
The measure also would have presented public employees a "choice" between reduced annual cost-of-living increases or a loss of retiree health care, an idea labor unions fiercely opposed and saw as unconstitutional.
As Progress Illinois has extensively examined, any such pension legislation would mean an almost certain lawsuit from labor. Jim Reed, director of government relations at the Illinois Education Association, anticipates "a court challenge to see if that proposal meets constitutional muster" if a bill similar to the Madigan package is signed into law.
Reed says that the General Assembly may yet pass a pension bill more palatable to labor. Representatives from labor are in talks with lawmakers, the union official says, about provisions such as a legal guarantee that the state will set aside the money needed each year to fund its five pension systems.
But if a compromise with labor cannot be reached, the General Assembly might hold their noses anyway and pass a bill with little bipartisan or union support. “The legislature has to sooner or later pass something and get sued,” Redfield says.
Redfield's colleague Wheeler wonders about the political consequences Democrats will face if they pass a pension bill that is not just partisan in nature, but also opposed by unions who historically have given money and grassroots support to Illinois Democrats.
“Unions might not turnout in the next election,” Wheeler asserted. “It’s not that the unions would vote Republican. It’s that they wouldn’t vote at all.”
Reed counters that such speculation is premature. "The 2014 election is an eternity away," Reed says. "At this point we are just past the last election and we believe the focus should be on policy."