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Gauen: Illinois tax hike's wake sets tone for 2018 elections

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, July 13, 2017  |  Commentary  |  By Pat Gauen

Budget--State (8) , Governor (44) , Taxes, income (86) Madigan, Michael--State House, 22
It developed as I expected since our last visit: The Illinois state budget constipation was relieved with a big tax increase. That is exactly the way a lot of residents regarded it.

Grumblers suggested they would just move, although the closest state with a lower income tax rate is Indiana.

And woe betide we who dared point out that most Illinoisans shared some blame by dozing through decades of overspending by their elected officials — until the bills could no longer be ignored. Some insisted it’s not their debt, without suggesting just whose it is.

I wonder if they would have noticed the difference had the Legislature been able to pull off the increase (of $12 per $1,000 earned) in secret?

Well, folks are sure noticing now. There’s a big election next year, and I suppose that’s one of the main reasons the General Assembly finally voted last week to pass what seemed to be an inevitable tax hike. The sooner (meaning the further from Nov. 6, 2018), the better.

It in effect had been just another battle between House Speaker Michael Madigan, a 24th-term Democratic representative, and a governor — in this case, Bruce Rauner, a first-term Republican. As speaker, Madigan has prevailed in various ways with six governors.

Politically, Madigan remains invincible. I think that only he or God can decide when it’s time for him to go. He runs in a safe district near Midway Airport in Chicago, collects a large majority of votes for re-election and is returned by House members every two years to the podium. So loyal — or perhaps in some cases afraid — is the persistent Democratic majority that I cannot remember any serious challenge to his leadership.

Madigan already had been speaker for 12 years when, in 1995, Republicans gained a short-lived House majority. Political pop quiz: Whom did the GOP choose for speaker? Answer: Lee Daniels of Elmhurst. But by 1997, and ever since, Madigan was back in charge.

He is the one leadership constant through years of providing good services and solid public-employee pensions that cost more than the state was bringing in. Appreciative unions played a strong role in delivering the majorities that, in turn, delivered Madigan. Business interests not only despise his pro-labor stand but blame it for a commercial climate they say drives out companies, jobs and tax revenue.

It was support from the anti-Madigan brigade that installed Rauner, in 2014, as their fresh breath to fix things.

This followed four years of scandal-tainted Republican Gov. George Ryan (who went to prison for corruption), six years of buffoonery by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich (in prison for corruption) and six years of inertia by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a party fringe activist who never gelled with Madigan.

We knew going into it that Rauner, a businessman with no government experience, was vulnerable to a mistaken belief that his private-sector acumen could out-maneuver politicians on their home field. (That situation reminds me a little of the White House, although Rauner and President Donald Trump could not be more different.)

Rauner stood fast for pro-business regulatory and tax reforms that Madigan and Co. would not accept. When the governor used vetoes to try to hold the state budget, tax increase and bond rating hostage, Madigan — assisted by votes from 10 Republicans — ran right over him.

Now, with the election not quite 16 months off, I wonder whether Rauner wounded himself by over-playing his hand or made himself an Alamo-like hero for standing proudly against an insurmountable enemy.

He plans to run again, and the radar has not picked up viable competition so far for the GOP primary March 20. A demonstrated willingness to bolster his campaign fund from a personal net worth reported to be near $1 billion should scare off all but the most well-heeled Republican foes.

He already has attracted two well-heeled Democratic foes who might be able to match him dollar-for-dollar. Venture capital tycoon J.B. Pritzker may not yet be a household name downstate, but it’s hard to escape his TV ads here. Chris Kennedy, the son of assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, belongs to one of America’s most prominently monied families.

Those still fuming from the tax increase when they go to the polls next year will like Rauner. Those who favor a stable operating table before surgery on state programs may not.

People who fear that things in Springfield will just keep stumbling along on the same path until the next crisis should look beyond the gubernatorial contest to the Senate and House races — and who will be the legislative leaders. That’s where substantive change will occur, or not.

Just look at what happened last week.