Why does it matter whom we elect as governor next fall, a young friend asked me recently.
If Pat Quinn is re-elected, nothing much will change. We’ll have too many people on the payroll, and we’ll pay them more than market wages. Whether pension reform passes court review or not, Illinois will face about $100 billion in unfunded liabilities — growing at 8 percent per year. And since we can’t fund them adequately, we’ll borrow until we can’t borrow any more.
Even if Bruce Rauner is elected, we’ll still have big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The governor by himself can’t enact into law a defined contribution plan to replace pensions. He can’t enact a budget by himself. The best he can do is come to deadlock with the legislature.
Drift vs. deadlock. Why get excited over that choice?
Ah, I tell him, there’s one very big thing a governor can do on his own, without legislative approval. Pat Quinn won’t do it, but Bruce Rauner might. And it could make all the difference for the state of Illinois’ future.
When the current AFSCME collective-bargaining agreement expires in 2015, the governor will represent Illinois in the bargaining over a new contract. What if he tells the union — and all our citizens:
“Illinois is at the point of no return. Bloated budgets and debts have shifted yesterday’s costs onto the future. That future is now. We have to cut costs. We have to get control of our metastasizing debts or they will squeeze out vital state functions, including support for education. The state’s jobs, its most productive citizens, its taxpayers — they’ll drift away to avoid the death spiral. The values of your businesses and homes will sink.
“As governor, I can’t pass pension reform by myself. And I can’t pass a budget by myself.
“But I can do this: When the current collective-bargaining agreement expires, I’m going to ask our employees to take a reduction in wages. They won’t like it, but we have no alternative. And I’m going to continue to hold wages down until we get control of our runaway budgets.
“This will save on annual operating costs. It will also help deal with the pension debt. Pensions are based on career-end wages. If wage levels are reduced, so are pension obligations.
“Some employees will retire or find work elsewhere. Maybe we won’t replace them. If we do, we’ll replace them with “new employees” who come under the new, less-costly pension plan put in place a few years ago by House Speaker Mike Madigan. Or we’ll outsource to some company or firm that will do the work at market rates.
“The unions probably won’t agree, but that will be my bargaining position. If we can’t reach an agreement, then we’ll be at impasse. Some may strike. I hope not, but I’ll do what I think is necessary to save Illinois. The mayor may have to do the same to save Chicago. Other municipalities and local school boards will too.
“It won’t be pretty. Triage never is. But it’s necessary if we don’t want to wind up like Detroit.”
It does matter. As a state, we’re facing a fiscal extinction event. All the other stuff this election year is just noise.