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How Governor Rauner is weaponizing the Illinois tax hike

He's emerged from the budget crisis with a convenient cudgel in the run-up to the 2018 election.

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Democrats either have to figure a way to defuse Rauner's anti-tax rhetoric or Illinois is in for another four years of his lunacy. - G-JUN YAM/AP PHOTOS
  • G-Jun Yam/Ap Photos
  • Democrats either have to figure a way to defuse Rauner's anti-tax rhetoric or Illinois is in for another four years of his lunacy.

On July 5, the day before the Illinois house at last ended the state's historically protracted fiscal stalemate by voting to override Governor Bruce Rauner's budget veto, Rauner came to the far southeast side to play populist in the manner of Donald Trump. Sounding off like a regular guy—droppin' g's left and right—the billionaire governor made like his unwillingness to compromise with Democrats on a budget was about taking a stand for the little guy.

"The tax hike is like a two-by-four smacked across the forehead," Rauner said during a press conference held in a tavern in Hegewisch. "The people of Illinois don't want more taxes in their lives."

As absurd as it is, Rauner's going to be flogging that anti-tax rhetoric in the run-up to the 2018 election. Which means Democrats either have to figure a way to defuse it or—gasp!—Illinois is looking at another four years of this lunacy.

On the surface, populism is a hard sell for Rauner, a passionately anti-union billionaire who was raised in the north suburbs, attended private schools, and went on to make his fortune as a venture capitalist.

But his anti-tax rhetoric resonates with swing voters who might ordinarily vote Democrat. Hell, I almost always vote Democrat, and I can tell you anti-property-tax talk kind of resonates with me—especially now, having just paid my property tax bill.

That's why Rauner came to Hegewisch, a predominantly white and Latino community just across the border from Indiana that's relatively fertile country for Republicans—Trump won roughly 35 percent of its vote compared to about 12 percent citywide.

In his press conference, Rauner railed against the tax hike, promising to do "everything possible" to prevent the veto override. When reporters pointed out that Wall Street would lower our bond rating to junk status if the state didn't pass a budget, Rauner scoffed.

"Don't listen to Wall Street," he said. "Don't listen to a bunch of politicians who want power and to stay in power like they've been for 35 years. Listen to the people of Illinois."

Rauner was trying to claim that he was standing up for the little guy against Wall Street in this budget battle. Of course, it's the other way around. His veto would actually increase Wall Street's profits, because a lowered rating means higher interest rates. And higher interest rates mean less money for necessary services for Illinoisans and more money for bankers.

As everyone should know by now, the reason property taxes are so high in Illinois—aside from waste, boondoggles, corruption, TIFs, etc—is that our state relies on those dollars to fund our schools. If Illinois had a progressive state income tax, we might be able to wean ourselves off the dependence on the property tax. In fact, this was the argument put forth by the late, great Dawn Clark Netsch in her 1994 gubernatorial campaign. Her opponent, Governor Jim Edgar, painted her as a tax-and-spend liberal. Forced to choose between a politician who tells the truth about taxes and one who doesn't, the public went with the BS, as it does almost every time, and Netsch lost in a landslide.

The house's reversal of Rauner's veto raised the state income tax rate from 3.75 to 4.95 percent, which should help generate almost enough money to start paying the state's $14.7 billion backlog of bills.

I'm cheering because government raised my taxes. But were I a politician on the stump, that would be a lousy hand to have to play against a shark like Rauner.

The conventional wisdom is that the governor emerged from the budget battle with the best of both worlds. No thanks to him, he momentarily avoids getting labeled as the governor who drove Illinois into bankruptcy. But thanks to the tax hike, he now has a hammer to use against Democrats—and still has a ton of campaign money to do the hammering. So look for him to make return trips to Hegewisch, as he talks about hard-hit families and shell-shocked businesses running to Indiana to flee the tax increase.

When Rauner does return, he'll be encroaching on the territory of his diametric opposite, the Tenth Ward's Sue Sadlowski Garza, one of the most progressive aldermen in the City Council and a proud member of the Chicago Teachers Union. Garza has a lot to say about the governor using her ward as a backdrop for his campaign to destroy everything she believes in.

"To hell with that," she says. "I don't want him in my ward—he's doing nothing for us. Rauner stands for everything I'm against. And have been against my whole life. This is a working-class ward of unions: firemen, police, teachers, ironworkers, carpenters, painters—you name it. And Rauner's a union-busting Republican who finances his campaign by writing $50 million checks, and he's not doing shit for working people."

But what about the property tax hike?

"Yeah, our property taxes are too high. If Rauner wants to help us with property taxes, let's get a progressive income tax to help pay for education," Garza says. "But you never hear him talking about that—because he doesn't want to tax his rich friends, even if it means our schools go broke."

Gee, I'm starting to think Garza should run for governor.   v

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