“We Need to Stop Being Nice”: IL Labor, Community Activists Push Progressive Budget Crisis Solutions

Simon SwartzmanJuly 15, 2015

A clergy-led rally protesting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's budget cuts. (John W. Iwanski / Flickr)

In the shad­ow of a poten­tial state gov­ern­ment shut­down, 125 lead­ers and pol­i­cy wonks from 63 non-prof­it, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and labor orga­ni­za­tions came togeth­er on June 29 to delib­er­ate over a series of pro­pos­als for rev­enue solu­tions to Illinois’s bud­get short­fall. Their goal: to push past the aus­ter­i­ty nar­ra­tive that has long con­strict­ed pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy­mak­ing at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment in the state.

We’re here to begin [a] con­ver­sa­tion about pro­gres­sive alter­na­tives,” said Amisha Patel, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Grass­roots Collaborative.

That con­ver­sa­tion revolved around how to get cor­po­ra­tions, wealthy indi­vid­u­als, and finan­cial insti­tu­tions to pay their fair share.”

Bran­don John­son, an orga­niz­er for the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, argued that the time for alter­na­tives is past due. Lives are lit­er­al­ly at stake,” he stated.

In the state cap­i­tal, right-wing Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty-con­trolled state leg­is­la­ture have engaged in bud­getary brinks­man­ship, mir­ror­ing the nar­ra­tive of fis­cal cliffs” and gov­ern­ment shut­downs” now famil­iar at the fed­er­al lev­el. While politi­cians in the state cap­i­tal Spring­field debate the extent of aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, social move­ments in Chica­go have ques­tioned the basis for it at all, such as the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s con­tention that Chica­go Pub­lic Schools is broke on pur­pose.” These recur­rent crises and the polit­i­cal dead­lock down­state show an oppor­tu­ni­ty to unite social move­ments against aus­ter­i­ty, but such a broad unit­ed front has been large­ly absent in Illinois.

It’s in this con­text that orga­niz­ers called a half-day emer­gency con­ven­ing” with a wide swathe of the city’s pro­gres­sive and social ser­vice groups. For­mer may­oral can­di­date Jesus Chuy” Gar­cia voiced his sup­port and opened the con­ven­ing, and was joined in the audi­ence by sit­ting politi­cians from city, state and coun­ty government.

Those assem­bled heard sev­er­al rev­enue pro­pos­als. The first focused on tax hikes aimed on wealthy indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing a pro­posed pro­gres­sive income tax (esti­mat­ed at rais­ing up to $2.4 bil­lion for the state), a com­muter tax ($300 mil­lion) and a lux­u­ry sales tax (between $553 mil­lion and almost $2 bil­lion, depend­ing on ser­vices taxed). A sec­ond pro­pos­al focused on cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty, includ­ing a pro­posed end to cor­po­rate tax loop­holes ($334 mil­lion), rais­ing cor­po­rate income tax­es ($770 mil­lion), a fee for bad busi­ness­es” that pay low wages ($2.2 bil­lion), a mora­to­ri­um on cor­po­rate hand­outs and sub­si­dies ($564 mil­lion) and reform­ing Chicago’s tax incre­ment financ­ing pro­gram ($457 mil­lion in annu­al rev­enue in the city). Pro­posed bank­ing and finan­cial indus­try reforms includ­ed a finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax and an end to preda­to­ry deals with banks for pub­lic financ­ing such as the inter­est rate swaps Bank of Amer­i­ca has arranged with the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools.

While some of these pro­pos­als are tied to exist­ing laws that have been brought up in Spring­field, oth­ers would require more dif­fi­cult, long-term cam­paigns. The pro­gres­sive income tax, for exam­ple, would require a con­sti­tu­tion­al amendment.

It’s a mul­ti-year cri­sis. We need a mul­ti-year cam­paign,” Patel said. We know that we’re going to be here every year, like­ly, at every lev­el of government.”

The pol­i­cy sug­ges­tions were, by nature, dry. But speak­ers empha­sized the pro­pos­als were about draw­ing a hard line against the eco­nom­ic elites they say are ben­e­fit­ing from Rauner and Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel’s poli­cies: cor­po­ra­tions and the 1%.”

Every­body keeps scream­ing there’s a rev­enue cri­sis. Just tax the rich,” said Ralph Edwards of ONE Northside.

Dur­ing break­out ses­sions, much dis­cus­sion focused on which pro­pos­als were most polit­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble and how to counter chal­lenges such as com­pe­ti­tion with oth­er states or cap­i­tal flight. Some argued for the grass­roots polit­i­cal will need­ed to make poli­cies a reality.

In order to con­nect this to the grass­roots, the every­day per­son on the streets, the folks that are not in this room, you have to try to con­nect this whole ques­tion of rev­enue with how it will improve their every­day lives,” said John­nie Owens from the Cen­ter for New Horizons.

The steep hur­dles raised in the dis­cus­sions stem, in part, from the nature of non-prof­it com­mu­ni­ty and social ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions, who rep­re­sent­ed a major­i­ty of those in the room. Many voiced excite­ment about the bold cam­paigns being pro­posed but were hes­i­tant to be the ones advanc­ing such bold demands. Much of the final hour focused on how to present these class-based polit­i­cal demands in mes­sag­ing that could ener­gize a move­ment with­out alien­at­ing key play­ers who might reject an agen­da per­ceived as too radical.

Orga­niz­ers acknowl­edged the dif­fi­cul­ties of many of the pro­pos­als and build­ing a long-term unit­ed front around them, but said those dif­fi­cul­ties were part of the point of an exper­i­men­tal gath­er­ing like this.

We want­ed to pull peo­ple into a room who aren’t nor­mal­ly in a room to talk about the future of the econ­o­my of our state,” said Patel. There’s a lot of ener­gy and inter­est about how to work togeth­er in a bold fashion.”

Ron Baiman, an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at Bene­dic­tine Uni­ver­si­ty who said he was impressed by the range of par­tic­i­pants gath­ered, felt the cur­rent moment offers some unique polit­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ties. His orga­ni­za­tion, the Chica­go Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my Group, has been push­ing for a finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax for years. But now, things have come togeth­er. There was a crash. There were years and years of paper­ing over this struc­tur­al deficit. It has come to a head.”

For many of the gath­ered groups, the state’s cri­sis has also cut close to home. Some orga­ni­za­tions present said they had felt the effects of the governor’s recent round of bud­get cuts, espe­cial­ly on social ser­vice providers. Rauner’s pro­posed cuts to pub­lic health ser­vices tar­get the poor­est and need­i­est: $1.4 bil­lion from Med­ic­aid, includ­ing cuts to kid­ney dial­y­sis, den­tal and podi­a­try for adults; slash­ing com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices by $5 mil­lion; and an addi­tion­al $21.9 mil­lion cut from the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health, includ­ing a 71% cut in screen­ings and ser­vices for breast and cer­vi­cal cancer.

The governor’s $431 mil­lion cut to high­er edu­ca­tion would report­ed­ly be cat­a­stroph­ic,” espe­cial­ly to first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or. His attempt to cut pub­lic work­er pen­sions by $2.35 bil­lion has already been found uncon­sti­tu­tion­al by unan­i­mous vote in the Illi­nois Supreme Court.

Giv­en the dire stakes and the polit­i­cal open­ing cre­at­ed by social move­ments like Occu­py against the 1%,” many orga­ni­za­tions and politi­cians seem to have come to the sum­mit with a new will­ing­ness to form a cam­paign cen­tered on a sharp­er mes­sage oppos­ing the rich than they are accus­tomed to.

We need to stop being nice,” Baiman, the eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor, stated.

Simon Swartz­man is a writer in Chicago.
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