- Published: Friday, June 03, 2016 03:03 PM
The following column by Sen. Daniel Biss was published in The State Journal-Register newspaper in Springfield on June 2.
On May 20, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing that Illinois has the highest unemployment rate in the country. On May 31, the Illinois General Assembly ended its regular 2016 session without passing a budget.
These two seemingly unconnected events actually are related. When the state has no budget, social service providers lay off thousands of people. Universities enact hiring freezes. Those who have the freedom to choose where to live flee the chaos, and businesses don't want to move here under a cloud of uncertainty.
We must bring this standoff to an end immediately.
But how could it be happening in the first place? Amazingly, for all the work done by advocates and rank and file legislators, the situation hasn't changed much since early 2015.
Gov. Bruce Rauner is not willing to make a budget deal that doesn't include parts of his so-called "turnaround agenda," and Democratic legislators are unwilling to make a budget deal that does include turnaround agenda items.
I could explain why I think Gov. Rauner should change his mind, but you probably don't care at this point — and I don't blame you. What we really need is a different way forward.
To chart such a course, we must understand why both sides are stuck. Gov. Rauner's position is clear: he badly wants to implement his agenda, and therefore won't pass up this chance to do it.
What about the Democrats?
In our opinion, Gov. Rauner's proposals would dramatically reshape the Illinois economy in destructive ways. And what are we being offered in exchange for this destruction?
Gov. Rauner's suggested "give" for Democrats is to enact a tax increase and balance the budget. However, everyone should want a balanced budget, so that's no concession. Gov. Rauner hasn't proposed a balanced budget without new revenue — making it clear that he actually wants a tax increase, so that's no concession either.
In other words, it's been hard to negotiate constructively within a structure that expects Democrats to give up a lot in exchange for nothing.
This is not going to work. Instead, we should create a level playing field: Gov. Rauner has laid out his economic proposals and since we don't like them, Democrats should counter with our own ideas.
There are certainly glimmers of such an agenda. Democrats have fought to repeal the state's bizarre constitutional provision mandating a flat tax — only four states have this, and it's held back our efforts at tax fairness and budgetary balance.
Democrats have fought to increase the minimum wage, and for other worker-friendly policies like paid sick days and family leave. We've sought to reform our criminal justice system and streamline local government. Democrats in the Senate have fought to reform our school funding formula, which is the most regressive in the country and holds our poorest districts back.
These ideas have some common threads: they seek to improve opportunity for the poor and middle class, and to change aspects of Illinois government that are out of line with other states. Most Democrats can proudly unite behind these goals.However, they're mostly seen as apparently unrelated bills pushed by individual legislators. That is, while Gov. Rauner and legislative Republicans advocate in one voice for the turnaround agenda, Democrats haven't assembled our ideas into a single program to put on the negotiating table.
Given the problems Illinois is facing, laying out a reform agenda is essential for any major party. Moreover, in order to find a compromise that respects the values of both sides, we need a negotiation whose starting point includes big ideas from both sides.
It may seem like when your unemployment rate is the highest in the country, you've hit bottom. But if we don't get past this impasse, unemployment will rise, more people will be denied crucial services, and more schools will risk insolvency. To avoid that nightmare, Democrats must come to the table with our own reform plan to fix Illinois.
— Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, represents the 9th District.