Posted by Leave a Commenton Friday, April 15, 2016 |
UPDATED: Eric Zorn’s Revealing Mike Madigan Report Card
In the wake of this week’s
hit piece column giving Governor Bruce Rauner an “epic F” for his job performance so far, Eric Zorn is back (back again, Zorn-y’s back, tell a friend) to give the same letter grade treatment to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Whether or not he intends it to be, Zorn’s take is particularly revealing of his complete lack of comprehension of the problems plaguing this state. Let us begin:
What about Mike Madigan?
A good question. One that, considering the man’s nearly 40 year tenure as the Speaker of the House and the undisputed most powerful politician in the state, who presently commands a veto-proof majority in his chamber (to compliment the veto-proof majority in the Senate), might have been worth asking before flunking Rauner. But, whatevs. Just like the Titanic arriving in New York’s harbor in Ghostbusters 2, better late than never.
Those four words sum up the bulk of the critical responses to my column Wednesday, in which I argued that Bruce Rauner has been an epic failure as governor of Illinois.
Gee, I wonder why?
If Rauner deserves an F for his first 15 months in office — a highly polarized time in which the state’s economy has worsened during an extended, ongoing budget standoff — then what grade does Madigan deserve?
I can’t hardly wait to find out!
The Chicago Democrat, who turns 74 next week, has been speaker of the House in Springfield for all but two years since 1983, and has been at least complicit in the key governmental decisions that led to the mess that Republican Rauner inherited when he took office in January 2015 — most notably an unfunded pension liability north of $100 billion and some $6 billion in unpaid bills that had piled up because the state was spending more than it was taking in.
“At least complicit?!?!?”
Madigan has been the primary political mover in this state for almost as long as I have even been alive. Tell me, when was the last time something significant passed through the legislature that didn’t have Mike Madigan’s stamp of approval? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That’s what I thought. And, in Zorn’s world, this earns him only the label of “at least complicit” in paving the road to fiscal doom that Illinois is now on? This is like saying Michael Jordan was only “at least complicit” in the Chicago Bulls winning 6 NBA titles in the 1990s.
When governors and legislators of both parties wanted to sweeten pension deals to keep labor happy and then under-invest in the pension funds in order to keep taxpayers happy, Madigan was their enabler-in-chief. When voters demanded services but didn’t want to pay for them, Madigan obliged by helping kick more cans down more roads than any other pol.
You know, the guy who is only “complicit.”
He passed on the opportunity to put his considerable shoulder behind trying to fix the structural problems that plague Illinois — a flat, comparatively low state income tax that doesn’t apply to retirement income, and a sales tax system that exempts most services, to name two — and adjusting the school-aid formula that has left many low-income districts awash in red ink and is just now becoming an urgent news story.
And here, my friends, is where we have hit the jackpot.
Speaker Madigan hasn’t put his “considerable shoulder” into trying to fix the structural problems that are running Illinois into the ground. No disagreement there. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that he’s “at least complicit” in the creation and metastasizing of those problems.
But those examples Zorn gives of the “structural problems”? To invoke a phrase I learned during my brief stint living in the south, bless his heart.
The two “structural problems” Zorn lists have one single, obvious thing in common: they are both ways in which he thinks that the state of Illinois doesn’t find enough clever ways to separate you from your hard-earned money. The flat, low income tax doesn’t take enough out of your paycheck. It doesn’t take anything out of your retirement income. The sales tax exempts too many services.
Zorn to Illinois: You should be paying way more in taxes. Happy April 15th!
Apparently, in the mind of Eric Zorn, the state’s unaffordable system of pension promises that permits 60% of pensioners to retire in their 50s, make an average employee contribution of a mere $128,000 towards their pension, and receive an average pension payout of $2.1 million (for the math averse, that is a contribution of only 6% versus their net payout, or more than a 15,000% return on their “investment”) and that has produced the current $111 billion unfunded pension liability? That’s not a structural problem worth noting.
Nor is the state’s Medicaid system where costs have been spiraling out of control for years.
Nor is a government education system that allows the state’s largest public school district — Chicago Public Schools — to spend upwards of $15,000 per pupil to graduate just over half of its students, 40% drop out, and for the ones that make it through to 8th grade, 80% of them aren’t proficient in reading or math.
No, the structural problem in Zorn’s mind are that the state doesn’t extract enough money from its citizens.
After all, to remind you, Illinois is a state that ranks 51st out of 50 in effective state and local tax burden (yes, we’re even behind Washington, D.C.), 50th in property tax burden, and our tax freedom day — the day when you’ve earned enough money to pay your total tax bill for the year — is the 7th latest in the nation.
But all of this isn’t enough for Eric Zorn.
Hey, points for honesty on Zorn’s part here. But this really should put a permanent end to taking Eric Zorn seriously on public policy questions, assuming you did so in the first place.
After Rauner was elected, but before he was sworn in, Madigan, in accordance with Rauner’s wishes but against lame-duck Gov. Pat Quinn’s advice, allowed five-eighths of a temporary state income-tax hike to sunset even though analysts estimated that doing so would blow at least a $4 billion annual hole in the budget. And even though, when you adjust for population and GDP, Illinois is not a comparatively high-spending state.
Double down time. Again, the problem to Zorn? The state doesn’t take enough of your money.
For fiscal stewardship, then, I’d give Madigan the same F grade I gave Rauner.
As I recall from the Rauner column, Zorn only assigned an overall letter grade, not one for “fiscal stewardship.” But why should I be shocked that we’re now parsing that so Madigan can get the kid-gloves treatment?
Though he’s not as all-powerful as his critics believe, Madigan’s been powerful enough for long enough to have kept us from being a deadbeat state in the grips of Squeezy the Pension Python.
Huh? Again, go back up and look at those pension numbers. Look at the $6 billion total of unpaid bills. How exactly are we not a deadbeat state? What is he even talking about here?
For political acumen, I’d give Madigan a solid B.
Hey, he’s just the guy who has overseen, over the past several decades, all the disaster detailed above. But his political acumen earns a “B.” Because, reasons.
As chairman of the state Democratic Party and éminence grise of the General Assembly he’s built and maintained strong majorities in both chambers, in part by insulating his foot soldiers from having to take the tough votes necessary to run a responsible government. Under Democratic and, with the exception of Rauner, Republican governors he’s protected his flanks while cutting deals that compromise with the opposition and, occasionally, his own party’s principles.
I’d give him an A for political leadership, but he’s paid the price for having a public demeanor so icy and charmless that you’d think he was auditioning to be a Bond villain. Not being outwardly likable is a liability when you’re in a high-stakes PR war with a faux-folksy governor who drops his g’s and wears a cheap watch.
Oh! He’d give him an “A” for political leadership, if he didn’t have the charming demeanor of the grim reaper? How generous. And what does it say that Zorn has concerns about Madigan’s salability in a PR war with a guy that just a few days ago he game an across-the-board “epic F” for his performance?
But Madigan’s transactional style and considerable control over his majority have long been givens. Rauner ignored that not only during the campaign, when he made vague but lofty promises to impose his Republican ideas on Illinois, but also after he took office. His plan to overcome the inevitable objections of Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton seemed to be to insult and taunt them while precipitating a budget crisis that would cause rank-and-file Democrats to beg him to let them increase taxes in exchange for letting him weaken unions.
Surprise, surprise. It hasn’t worked. It shows no signs of ever working, which is why the governor also gets an F for political acumen.
What about Mike Madigan?
If Rauner had figured out an answer to that question before taking office, he might have some successes to show today instead of an unbroken string of failures.
Just a few paragraphs ago, he was calling Madigan “not as all-powerful” as his detractors make him out to be. But now his control over the legislature is a given! A “given” that Bruce Rauner failed to property comprehend and accept before raising his hand to take the oath of office. Thing are just changing so fast.
Zorn’s closing is basically just a repetition of his original column, so you can head over to the breakdown of that to read more, if you want.
I really do have to hand it to Eric Zorn here, though. Rarely do you see any of the media cheerleaders and the defenders of the status quo in this state admit so directly that the only problem here is that they don’t take enough of your money.
The honesty is refreshing.
UPDATE 1: Well, check this out. Eric Zorn complains about this state’s lack of a graduated income tax … on exactly the same day that Rep. Lou Lang introduces a bill for a graduated income tax! What a strange and remarkable coincidence!
Last week, AFSCME Council 31 released a short online video taking some swings at the Illinois Policy Institute:
All in all, this is pretty ho-hum stuff, and just about what you’d expect rhetorically from AFSCME. Up to and especially including the obligatory, “Ahhhh, the boogeyman!” mention of the Koch Brothers.
But let’s take a quick look at some of the liberties AFSCME took with this video.
First up, the Chicago Tribune column from Diana Sroka Rickert. Rickert is VP of Communications at IPI, and regularly publishes a guest column in the Tribune. Here’s the freeze-frame from the video where they highlight the headline and the byline:
Notice the byline. Now look how it actually appears on the Tribune‘s website:
Just a name. No identifier. Here’s now the identifier shows up in a footer at the bottom of the column, emphasis mine:
Diana Sroka Rickert is a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute. The opinions in this essay are her own.
I’ve looked, and I can’t find where this article appears with the byline as displayed in the AFSCME video. I’m left to assume that the video image has been edited to add “a writer with the Illinois Policy Institute” behind Rickert’s name or to remove the second half of what appears in the footer, clarifying that “the opinions in this essay are her own.”
The second part is important. Rickert is not writing this piece in an official capacity for IPI. She’s expressing her own opinions. I would like to imagine that AFSCME would appreciate the same courtesy being extended to their members and officials when expressing their opinions in a private-citizen capacity and not as speaking on behalf of AFSCME. Otherwise, it’s fair game to attribute everything AFSCME members say to the union itself. Things like, perhaps, this.
Also left on the cutting room floor? The real, complete thrust of Rickert’s proposal:
Lay off the entire state workforce, and close the pension system. Work with the General Assembly to open a different retirement plan for newly hired government workers, modeled after the nation’s most popular retirement vehicle: the 401(k). Then offer to rehire state workers under the new retirement plan.
Guess they forgot to mention that whole “hire them all back part.” Oops.
Overall, there’s no sourcing for anything in this video. Most political campaign ads include some kind of citations where, if you’re really interested, you can go find and examine their justification for the claims being made. But AFSCME doesn’t tell you where you can find any context for what they’ve chosen to excerpt here.
For example, they’ve attributed the words “abandon pensions” to IPI CEO John Tillman. A quick Google search for John Tillman “abandon pensions” returns no results. And even if I stipulate that Tillman has said these two words consecutively at some point in time, there’s no way to access any greater context for those remarks. They’re two words. I imagine if we went back through the statements of AFSCME officials we could have some tremendous fun excerpting two-word phrases out of context from their greater statements.
Later on, the video asserts that IPI’s agenda is to “Wipe Out Unions.” Their justification for this claim is this:
Establishing local right-to-work zones = “wipe out unions?”
First of all, we’re only talking about localized right-to-work zones. In this particular case, this is about legislation that was approved in Lincolnshire that only governs that village. Simply put, there are unions within right-to-work zones. There are 26 right-to-work states in the country, including union-heavy Michigan. There are unions existing and operating within all of those states. The only difference is that there are no closed shops. No one has to join a union (or pay tribute) in order to take a job and work in those states. They can choose to. But they’re not compelled against their will.
Claiming the establishment of local right-to-work zones is tantamount to “wiping out unions” is absurd, and pretty self-indicting the part of the unions. What they’re really saying is that they believe when people are extended a choice on whether or not to join a union, people will overwhelmingly choose not to join, thus resulting in the union being “wiped out.” They’re saying that they themselves believe unions are only sustainable when people are coerced and compelled into joining and supporting them. What does that say about unions?
If this is really the best that AFSCME has to offer, then that’s pretty weak sauce.
There are plenty of people who are disenchanted with the current election cycle. But I think it’s safe to say that Reboot Illinois publisher and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Madeleine Doubek is not looking forward to this fall’s state contestso:
Why should we care about what happens in contested state legislative races all over the state this year? Each really is about the battle for control between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. You knew that, but perhaps you didn’t realize we all will lose no matter who wins.
I can empathize with the general feeling. I’ve accepted that, for me, this year’s presidential election ends in tears no matter what happens. I’ve taken to describing it as the Alien vs. Predator election. Whoever wins… we lose:
Anyway, let’s get to why Doubek thinks this:
Every election cycle, there typically are a couple dozen hotly contested state legislative races, even after one political party or the other gets done rigging maps in their favor. Each party in both chambers has seats they can swipe from the other side. It’s in those races, traditionally, where most of the money is raised and spent.
This year is no different. But where it has changed, is that Republicans now are energized because of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner changes the political landscape in Illinois with his determination to shake up Springfield and his bottomless checking account. After years and years of failure, Republicans have their best shot in decades at winning the nuclear arms race that is funding and winning campaigns. …
Rauner shook up Springfield all right. Now, instead of one dictator, we now have two.
Rauner and Madigan control how much money goes into the key races like never before.
Tthe importance of money to political elections is generally overstated. Yes, it’s important. But it’s not everything. If you think money is everything, be sure to tell that to people like Republican Presidential nominee Jeb Bush or Illinois U.S. Senator Blair Hull. Or Bryce Benton, who challenged State Sen. Sam McCann, backed by a large amount of money, and lost by a sizable margin. They’re all examples that spending all the money in the world can’t make people vote for you if they don’t want to.
And the “dictator” line is just ridiculous hyperbole.
But this general consternation over how much money is being spent in Illinois political races, of the type being expressed here by Doubek, seems to be a recent phenomenon. And, at that, one prompted mostly by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s regular and significant investments in Republican candidates and infrastructure.
But for years, House Speaker Mike Madigan was the central bank of political contributions in the state. He controlled a fortune that was doled out to the candidates of his choice. And yet, it seems that far fewer people ever batted an eye at that hegemonic control of the campaign purse than they are at Rauner’s attempts to level the playing field for Republican candidates.
How can we constituents fight to be heard when the politicians all owe their jobs to Madigan and Rauner?
I’d say they can be heard in that there’s an alternative to Madigan’s singular control over politics in this state. At least there’s an alternative. And I think she gives far too little credit to voters, assuming they don’t know what they’re buying, or what is generally at stake in this election.
We’ll find out in a few weeks time what the voters think.
If there is one thing that Chicagoland politicians are good at, it’s finding all kinds of new and creative ways to separate you from your hard-earned money. Take, for example, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has the benefit of being viewed as reasonable and competent by far too many people mostly because she’s not Todd Stroger. According to Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times, she’s currently mulling a tax on soda and other sugary drinks as a desperation ploy to try to close the county’s budget gap:
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is “looking hard” at a new tax on sugary soft drinks — anywhere from half a penny to a full penny an ounce — to close a $174.3 million budget shortfall without employee layoffs, sources said Tuesday. …
Now, Preckwinkle is returning to another controversial revenue idea she considered last year: a tax on sugary soft drinks long championed by public health advocates to curb obesity and diabetes that drives burgeoning health care costs.
Anything to avoid admitting the need for structural reform, I guess.
Back when the state was considering a similar tax, I wrote about why taxing soda — and other so-called vice taxes — are inherently contradictory in rationale and just generally terrible public policy:
First, the notion that obesity is an epidemic is commonplace but also grossly overstated. And the idea that people aren’t aware of what the First Lady of the United States has spent the last 5-plus years working to combat is absurd.
But the bigger insult to logic and reason is the 2nd paragraph in the quoted text above. We hear this same kind of reasoning, typically from Democrats and the left, when it comes to cigarette taxes. It goes like this: “This tax increase on [cigarettes, soda, whatever] will be a good thing because that tax revenue will help fund this really, really, really important government program. And, also, by raising the price of [smoking, drinking soda, whatever] it will discourage people from doing something that really just isn’t all that good for them.”
I hope you can clearly see the problems there. Cigarette taxes, and now soda/sugary drink taxes, are seemingly the one area of life where the left will acknowledge that what you tax you get less of. You tax cigarettes, you get less smoking. You tax soda, you get less consumption of soda. You tax income/work … you get less work? Of course. Except the left usually never makes that connection on that last one. Weird.
On the other side of the argument is the notion that said cigarette or soda tax revenue is going to help pay for some critical government program. Except that typically there won’t be enough revenue generated by the tax to actually fund the program, especially when you consider the diminishing returns on the tax revenue by the higher cost of consuming the drinks. The cigarette tax that was to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-CHIP, had one major problem: it needed about 22 million MORE smokers in order to fully fund the program. Oops.
That’s all assuming that this tax will actually be successful in driving people to other drinks. …
For the tax to have the effect Rep. Gabel desires, to drive people to drink something other than soda or other sugary drinks, it needs to be significant enough to make it costly enough for people to seek other alternatives. Will a penny per ounce do that? Unlikely. Adding extra $.12 to a can of soda or $.20 to a bottle, or $.32 or $.64 to fountain drinks isn’t likely to be enough of a cost burden to drive people to seek alternatives. There are a whole gaggle of people who regularly shell out $4 or $5 for a coffee or cappuccino at Starbucks. Do you really think that less than a dollar of extra cost is going to make that big of a difference? For most people, again, unlikely.
Which brings us to the last big problem: the problem of acceptable alternatives. Say the tax is effective in driving people to want to buy something other than soda or the other sugar-filled drink they like. It won’t be, but let’s say it does work. What alternatives exist out there? It seems clear that most people won’t be satiated with just water. Not everyone is going to want to drink coffee instead — into which people often put a significant amount of sugar. Nor does it seem likely people will flock to tea — iced tea often being sweetened, as well.
There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of alternatives out there for people to choose from if they don’t want to bear the cost of the tax on sugary drinks. So, they’re then still likely to just bite the bullet and buy the drink they want.
This tax just isn’t significant enough to have the discouraging effects that they proponents claim to want.
Which makes the real point of this gambit clear. It’s about revenue. It’s not about a concern for people’s health. And, why is it any of Rep. Gabel’s business what people want to drink any way? It’s a clear example of politicians feigning concern for your well-being in order to regulate the minutia of your life. And, finding new and exciting ways to separate you from your hard-earned money, to boot.
It was a terrible idea then. It’s a terrible idea now. And if Preckwinkle pursues it in this year’s budget, it’s nothing more than kicking the can of real, meaningful reform down the road even further for Cook County.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the Illinois Policy Institute has a new documentary film coming out on Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The trailer:
The kicker: the website for the documentary is www.MichaelMadigan.com. Which begs the question, even if he famously eschews technology, how on earth did Madigan’s team not own that URL?
Capitol Fax‘s Rich Miller is in the film. But he’s claiming that he was “duped” into participating. From Miller’s Crain’s Chicago Business column:
I was duped by a right-wing organization into appearing in what will probably be a propaganda movie. It’s my own fault. The producer claimed that while some people were pointing fingers at House Speaker Michael Madigan, his company was interested in doing a fair and balanced film about “what’s really at the center of it all.”
Two days later, I found out that the forthcoming “documentary” is backed by an arm of the well-funded Illinois Policy Institute, one of Madigan’s fiercest critics and a staunch ally of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The institute’s top executive is also a close Rauner adviser. I’m not exactly popular with that group, although I have strongly supported several of its small-business initiatives in Chicago. I’m not expecting to come out of the editing room looking too well.
Such is life.
I’m curious if Miller really thinks that the film will slice and dice what he said to make him look bad, ala the modus operandi of The Daily Show. Anyway, I can’t wait to see what he had to say if he’s openly fretting that he won’t “come out of the editing room looking too well.”
As for this controversy… look, I wasn’t there. But I’ll say this much: there’s a lot of pre-judging of a film that no one has seen yet going on here. It’s hardly uncommon for documentaries to have a distinct point of view. Take a look at some of the recent Oscar winners for Best Documentary:
- 2014: Citizenfour, which is a very sympathetic look at NSA whistleblower/leaker Edward Snowden.
- 2010: Inside Job, which contends that the 2008 financial meltdown was, well, an inside job perpetrated by the corrupt financial services industry.
- 2006: An Inconvenient Truth, a very one-sided and widely disputed take on global warming/climate change featuring Al Gore.
- 2002: Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s anti-gun take on the Columbine school shooting.
And those are just some of the winners. Nominees with distinct points of view have included films like Super Size Me, Jesus Camp, Sicko, Food Inc., Gasland, and plenty of others that were never nominated. If “propaganda” is now being defined as a film having a point of view, then you’d have to say all of these films are propaganda. And it’s pretty hard to judge the Madigan film, since it hasn’t been released yet. Let’s cross that critical bridge when we come to it.
But something caught my attention in the comments on the first Capitol Fax post about this story. Here’s a supposedly anonymous comment:
And Miller’s response:
Sounds awful threatening. And so much for anonymous comments being anonymous, I guess.