Thursday, October 25, 2018

Curmudgeon attempts to explain Kanye West, Donald Trump, Mike Madigan, and the "Blue Wave" - Part 2

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The gentleman on the left is Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

Those of you who are not from Illinois may not be familiar with him.

But Mr. Madigan has been Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives since about the time the Earth's crust cooled -- OK, since 1983 -- though there was a two-year interregnum from 1995-1997. He got his start at the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969, the same year that he was elected Democratic Committeeman of Chicago's 13th Ward -- a title he has held, of course, ever since. (In Chicago, though this is perhaps less true than it used to be, the committeeman post is the source of his true power.) And he is also (since 1998) the Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. He has been around so long that his daughter Lisa is retiring this year after a long career as Illinois Attorney General.

As with Kanye West and Donald J. Trump, I don't know Mr. Madigan personally. But, unlike those others, I do know a number of folks who have worked with and for Mr. Madigan over the years.

Good people.

Honest people.

Nice people.

Not the sort that would be attracted to serve with the Devil.

And, so, even though some of these nice, decent sorts that I do know personally have helped Mr. Madigan draw the most astoundingly convoluted electoral maps (contrary to what you read in the national press, it is not only Republicans who gerrymander) and even though some of these people that I do know have helped Mr. Madigan torpedo efforts to draw competitive electoral maps, I believe I can say with some confidence that Mr. Madigan sports neither a tail, nor horns, nor cloven hooves.

He knows the rules. He works them to his supreme advantage. He assumes nothing, and allows his people to assume nothing either. They knock on doors. They listen. (That's good.) They figure out what people fear, and they prey on it. (Not so good.) They cram mailboxes with flyers, pamphlets, postcards (big and small), some factual, some outrageous. Madigan has figured out a formula for victory and, generally, he wins.

In Illinois this November, Mr. Madigan will almost certainly win in that, thanks to his cartographic skills, and his field work, Democrats will have another veto-proof majority in the House, which will again elect Mr. Madigan Speaker.

But.

If you have the misfortune to watch television in the Chicago market, especially during news programs, you'd think Mr. Madigan was the Boss of All Bosses, the capo di tutti capi, and, moreover, a candidate for every elected office.

Again, if you were forced to watch the commercials, you would think that Mr. Madigan's opponent in every race was President Donald J. Trump.

Four years ago, after two of our most recent governors went to jail (one Republican and one Democrat -- in Illinois, corruption is bipartisan) -- we elected as our governor a Republican billionaire, Bruce Rauner. He was going to "shake up Springfield." And the personification of Springfield was, in his view, Speaker Madigan.

Mr. Rauner had exactly zero qualifications for elected office other than his wealth. And like a lot of big shot, big-headed businessmen, he thought that all the political system was lacking were his management skills.

Mr. Madigan had a veto-proof majority in the House. Democratic State Senate President John Cullerton had a veto-proof majority in the Senate. What did Rauner think he was going to do? Fire them?

Mr. Rauner had reason to want to 'shake up Springfield.' Despite a constitutional balanced budget requirement, Illinois was drowning in debt. There were mountains of unpaid bills -- and Illinois' pensions were in abysmal shape. In Springfield (and Chicago, too, for that matter), while government workers paid a chunk of their every paycheck toward their pensions -- it was automatically deducted -- the governments themselves skimped or even skipped their required contributions. When the real estate bubble was billowing, everything looked good on paper. The pensions seemed adequately funded, despite the missed governmental contributions, because of the paper value of the assets owned by the funds.

When reality intruded, however, the pensions' parlous positions were revealed.

The last governor, Pat Quinn, had sealed his electoral doom by obtaining a temporary state income tax hike from the Legislature to start paying down our debt. But that temporary hike was due to roll back in 2015, at the start of the new gubernatorial term.

Rauner didn't want to announce that we'd better keep the higher tax rate in place -- and Madigan wasn't going to do it for him.

Because neither would blink, Illinois went nearly three years without a budget.

I blame Madigan.

Now that may seem unfair inasmuch as it is, in Illinois, the governor's constitutional duty to prepare and submit a balanced budget.

But Rauner had no clue. He was a billionaire who bought his position. Mr. Madigan was the seasoned political professional -- with a veto-proof majority, at least on paper.

He could have lead.

Madigan could have tried to craft a budget. But there would be a tax hike -- in the end, of course, there had to be. And Mr. Madigan didn't want to take the political hit for it (and Republicans now are screeching about Madigan's 67% tax hike -- our income tax rate went from 3.75% to 4.95% 1 -- and it's probably still not enough). Democrats are claiming that Rauner cost the state a billion dollars (through increased borrowing costs as budgetless Illinois' credit rating kept drifting downward) -- but it was as much Madigan's fault as Rauner's.

Eventually -- and the use of the passive voice is entirely intentional here -- a budget was crafted. The passive voice is used because no one claims ownership of it, though Madigan is blamed for it. Rauner vetoed it. The veto was overridden. And this budget is almost certainly not balanced(magical accounting assumptions are needed); on the other hand, though our debts will continue to grow, the rate of the increase of our deficit should slow.

Maybe Madigan could not have moved faster than he did. "Progressive" Democrats from Chicago share little in common with conservative Democrats from rural areas Downstate. Mr. Madigan is not the absolute monarch portrayed in the Republicans' commercials. He could not dictate any result. The few Republicans might have refused -- as they ultimately did refuse -- to collaborate.

So why do I blame Madigan?

I guess I blame Mr. Madigan because he was the adult, or should have been. He should have shouldered the responsibility once it became clear that Rauner would default. While he does not wield absolute power, he has considerable influence, mainly because he has substantial control over campaign funding for his delegation in the Illinois House. I think he was slow to use the influence he had -- I mean, seriously, three years?

I guess I blame Mr. Madigan because our fiscal problems grew and festered while he has been in office. Our problems pre-date Rauner; they will persist once he is gone.

And how do the Illinois Democrats propose to solve these long-standing, and at least somewhat self-inflicted, problems?

Well, instead of acknowledging and cleaning up the mess they helped to make, the Democratic Party of Illinois has made it their number one priority to get Rauner the heck out of Springfield. Toward that end, the Party has embraced J.B. Pritzker -- another damn billionaire without any real political experience (his sister Penny was Secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration, but J.B., aside from being a delegate to a couple of Democratic National Conventions, has never held elective or appointed political office -- he ran for Congress once, in 1998, and lost).

To solve the problem of a clueless billionaire Republican governor, the Democrats recruit a clueless billionaire of their own? (And clueless he must be: If you want to be a Democrat in this state you must be 100% pro-union. Mr. Pritzker used non-union labor to rehab his mansion. A Democrat has to support the rich paying their fair share of taxes. Mr. Pritzker bought the mansion next door to his, had all the toilets removed, and then sought -- and received -- a property tax break on his own home... because the house next door was uninhabitable. Months after being exposed, Pritzker finally offered to pay back the tax savings he unfairly won. Totally clueless.)

Anyway, Pritzker's stated solution to our chronic fiscal woes is that Illinois should tax the rich more than the poor. A graduated income tax.

But there's a small problem with this -- and it is one the media either doesn't understand or deliberately refuses to report.

See, the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Con-Con being the place where Mr. Madigan got his start in electoral politics, remember) provides that Illinois can have only a flat income tax. One rate for all incomes. To get the graduated tax that Mr. Pritzker purports to support, we will need to amend our constitution. That can't happen before 2020 -- it has to come before, and be approved by, the voters. The media have finally figured out that there can't be such a tax before 2020, but they haven't addressed the necessity of the constitutional amendment -- or the uncertainty of its passage.

You see... here, as in most things, the Devil is in the details. The Democrats, well aware that most of us are not millionaires, would like to focus on hiking the tax rate for incomes in the millions of dollars. Fine. But what will be the tax rate on $50,000 in income? What will be the tax rate on $100,000?

And what guarantees will there be that our property taxes -- which are extraordinarily high compared to rates in other states -- will actually go down?

To pass, under Article 14, Section 2 of our Constitution, a proposed graduated income tax amendment would have to approved by "either three-fifths of those voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election."

You may wonder what that means.

Remember, this proposition will be at the very bottom of the ballot. A lot of people come out to vote in presidential election years, as 2020 will be, but vote only for President -- or President and a few other top offices. As one goes further down the ballot, historically, fewer and fewer people vote. Unless the constitutional amendment enjoys the support of a super-majority, every non-vote on the constitutional question, therefore, is an effective "no" vote.

To illustrate: In the November 2016 election, according to the records of the Illinois State Board of Elections, 5,666,118 ballots were cast in Illinois. But, only 4,811,115 voters made it all the way down to the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot, adding a new Section 11 to the Revenue Article, Article 9, of the Constitution (dealing with transportation funds). The amendment enjoyed overwhelming support across the entire state -- carrying every single Illinois county -- with 78.91% of those voting on the proposition supporting it -- but those yes votes amounted to only 67.47% of the total ballots cast.

So maybe the Democrats can pass a constitutional amendment in 2020. But what will we do in the meantime?

The State is in a bad way. Chicago is on its way to becoming the next Detroit. Substituting one inept billionaire for another will not solve anything.

I'm tired of the posturing. I'm tired of the nonsense. I want grownups to handle our political affairs. I know the Republicans are no better. But I can't support the status quo any longer. I know I'm spitting into the wind, and I know all I'll get for my troubles is a wet face.

But it's that frustration with the way things are that leads me not lend unquestioning support to those who have been in charge here since forever. And while I might not agree with Kanye West on how to make things better, or what we need to change, and how, I think I can understand, a little bit, anyway, why he'd wear that silly MAGA hat.

And I know I haven't talked about the "Blue Wave" yet. That will be next.

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1 Some of you may know how to do math. You may protest that this is not a 67% increase -- which, of course, it isn't. But Illinois' flat income tax rate used to be 3% -- in 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn (the governor who didn't go to jail, but succeeded to office when Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office on his way to jail) got a temporary hike of that 3% rate to 5% with a 'rollback' permanent rate of 3.75%. An increase from 3% to 5% is a 67% increase, and an increase from 3% to 4.95% is close enough -- and no one pays attention to numbers anyway, right? Math is hard.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Curmudgeon attempts to explain Kanye West, Donald Trump, Mike Madigan, and the "Blue Wave" - Part I

Pretty big undertaking, wouldn't you say?

Well, let's start with this: I don't know Kanye West. I wouldn't know Kanye West if he bit me on the leg.

I certainly don't know Kanye West's music. I understand he recorded a track or two with Paul McCartney. I haven't heard them. And I guess Mr. West is married to a reality TV star who became famous for making a sex tape with someone who is not Kanye West.

But I do know Kanye West is from Chicago. He was just here yesterday, with Chance the Rapper, at a rally for longshot Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia. Mr. West has contributed somewhere around $73,000 to her campaign.

And Amara Enyia is not Donald Trump supporter.

Far from it.

Mr. West, on the other hand, has been supportive of President Donald J. Trump. He's been warmly received in the Oval Office. He's been photographed, as shown here, wearing a MAGA hat. Why? I think I can explain. But you'll have to stay with me awhile.

Meanwhile, let's get this straight: I don't like President Trump. He is a bully and a boor and a loudmouth. When he speaks, I cringe. I can't understand how he got a single vote in the 2016 Republican primaries.

But he won.

Fair and square.

I'm not about to throw out the Electoral College or any other part of the Constitution simply because Donald Trump had the insane good fortune to run against Hillary Clinton. Who thought the election was a mere formality. Who assumed the Rust Belt and the Upper Midwest would vote for her without bothering to do anything to court their votes... oh, wait, she threw a concert in Ohio. LBJ was there. (No, not that LBJ, you old fogies, he's long dead -- you know, LBJ the basketball megastar.)

The one good thing about Trump that I can say is that -- since this is still America -- he will soon be gone. In January 2021, presumably. By no later than January 2025. We will outlast him.

There are times when I can almost feel sorry for Mr. Trump. Sometimes I think he has been the subject of the most negative press coverage in history. It's not that the horrible, mean, vile things said about Trump are anything new. Horrible, mean, vile things were said about his predecessor -- my fellow Chicagoan, Mr. Obama -- as well. Different things. But horrible nonetheless. And, unlike a lot of the terrible things said about Mr. Obama, some of the things said about Trump, though vile and mean, are true, or mostly true.

But there is a difference: When people were reported saying horrible, mean, vile things about Mr. Obama, those people were vilified, publicly shamed, humiliated. Many lost jobs. When people are reported saying horrible, mean, vile things about Mr. Trump, they typically receive applause. Plaudits. Appreciation. To the point where I can almost -- almost -- feel sorry for the man.

And then the idiot tweets again.

So -- knowing, as you now do, how I feel about Mr. Trump, you will be unsurprised to learn that, this November, I will be voting for every damn Republican I can find. Not that I'll be able to find many on my Cook County ballot.

Oh... you are surprised?

But the explanation is simple: Like Kanye West, I am from Chicago.

I realize that, for most who happen upon this post, I will have to expand on this in order for you to understand. And that's what I will do in the post or posts to come.