Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wait -- there wasn't a phone call to Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton after all?

Yesterday, I went off on a speculative binge. I imagined what Bruce Rauner might have said to Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton when he supposedly called them on Election Night.

That's what I heard him say he did, although his spokespeople are now suggesting that my ears were lying to me. President Cullerton says a Rauner staffer spoke briefly with one of his staffers but there was no direct communication; Speaker Madigan's spokesman is saying there's no record of any attempt by Mr. Rauner to speak with Mr. Madigan.

Eric Zorn had an interview with President Cullerton (one of the big differences between real reporting and mere blogging involves actually talking to people) from which Mr. Zorn developed the distinct, and to me unsettling, impression that, if Mr. Rauner wants the "temporary" income tax rate of 5% to become permanent (or if he wants any interim rate between the imminent 3.75% rate and 5%) he will, in essence, have to beg for it.

Now here's where I get confused: I thought that keeping the 5% rate was necessary to keep Illinois afloat as we paid down some of our pension liabilities and backlogged bills. Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka -- hardly a Quinn partisan -- said a drop in the income tax rate from 5% to 3.75% next year will be like giving the state a heart attack.

If that is the case, it seems -- at best -- unseemly to engage in brinkmanship with the incoming governor on this issue. Our state's credit rating is already in the dumpster.

I'm no fan of paying taxes -- taxes are at best a necessary evil -- but the key word in that phrase is necessary. Past administrations failed to make pension payments, counting on investment income and a growing economy to make up the difference. Then came the Great Recession. Now we have reaped the whirlwind. We have to pay the piper -- and our retirees -- somehow. And, much as I don't like to pay it, the income tax is a far, far better option than Mr. Rauner's suggested tax on services. At least that's what I thought.

Clearly, although I try to pay attention, I don't understand politics. And for all his apparent success in other arenas, neither, I think, does Mr. Rauner. But is it really necessary to use the tax rate issue to teach the governor-elect that there are three branches of government? Isn't Mr. Rauner destined to find out soon enough that being head of the Executive branch means nothing unless he can secure the cooperation of the Legislature?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Mr. Rauner should have said to Mr. Madigan last night and other unsolicited advice to the Governor-elect

We have about 24 to 48 hours to digest the results of last night's election results before the mayoral race swings into high gear....

Photo of Mr. Rauner voting yesterday,
taken from the Glenview News website.
Bruce Rauner's own campaign workers booed during his victory speech last night when he mentioned that he had called House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. The TV Talking Heads were quick to praise Mr. Rauner's gesture, unpopular as it may have been in the hotel ballroom, pointing out that Mr. Rauner, who had until that moment put Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton on a par with Beelzebub in all of his public pronouncements, will need their cooperation if he is to have any chance to accomplish anything in his gubernatorial term.

But the Talking Heads didn't speculate, at least on the channel I watched, about what Mr. Rauner may have said.

Don't you wonder?

Here's the gist of what I imagine Mr. Rauner might have said: Since I know you are bound and determined to have the General Assembly make the "temporary" 5% income tax rate permanent, could you please get this done before I'm sworn in? Yes, I know Mr. Rauner expended millions on commercials prophesying that Gov. Quinn would do just this were he to be re-elected. And Mr. Rauner swore he'd insist on the rollback -- but that was never realistic. He simply does not have the votes in the legislature to accomplish this. Messrs. Madigan and Cullerton could wait until the new year to make the 5% tax rate permanent, forcing new-Gov. Rauner to veto the plan -- he absolutely would have to -- but a veto override, though it would render Rauner an irrelevancy at the outset of his term, may not be so sure a thing, even in a supposedly veto-proof General Assembly. Legislators who barely survived tight reelection races may be understandably skittish. Were the veto of the 5% income tax rate to somehow succeed, the plutocrats who run the credit rating agencies, Mr. Rauner's natural allies, would have no choice but to further downgrade the state's already terrible bond ratings. On the other hand, if a lame duck General Assembly makes the tax rate no-longer-temporary, Mr. Rauner can fulminate to his heart's extent from the sidelines, but without necessarily incurring potentially fatal damage to his credibility.

But that's just my imagination. Mr. Rauner may not have asked. But Mr. Rauner has stated ambitions for school funding, for property tax freezes, and other things that will cost money. Putting the income tax rate back to 3%, as much as he says he wants to, would presumably deprive Mr. Rauner of the opportunity to do much of anything except cut and prune spending and services. As an experienced corporate takeover specialist, Mr. Rauner may feel he knows all there is to know about cutting and pruning. But he may find that the lessons of the private sector do not readily translate to the public sphere.

If Mr. Rauner's budget plans remain somewhat nebulous, Mr. Rauner nevertheless packs for Springfield with two fully-formed ideas, both of them stinkers.

Even last night, Mr. Rauner was plumping for his term limits plan. Actually, we have a perfectly good term limits plan in place in this country already. It's called an election. Elections don't work very well as a term limits plan in Illinois most of the time -- but the problem here is not with elections per se, the problem we have is that Speaker Madigan is such a gifted map-maker. He has redrawn legislative districts in such a way as to prevent meaningful election contests just about everywhere, maximizing the strength of the State's Democratic voters, minimizing the impact of the state's Republicans. This does not make Mr. Madigan bad or evil; he is merely taking advantage of what the current law allows him to do. Mr. Rauner's term limits plan would, if it could be enacted (which it can't), force Mr. Madigan to give up the post of House Speaker. But it would not take the map-drawing pen from Mr. Madigan's hand. A truly non-partisan map drawing commission, on the other hand, just might succeed. The recent attempt to put a constitutional amendment allowing just such a commission failed in court, but the court may have provided a road map showing how the defects in the proposal can be cured.

The other truly bad idea Mr. Rauner floats is his service tax proposal. Basically, he would extend the sales tax on tangible goods to intangible services... like attorney's fees or hospital bills. Maybe some of the big law firms could absorb such a tax -- it might require only a software tweak -- assuming that well-heeled corporate clients are still willing to pay whatever Big Law requires, but a service tax would be a disaster for small service businesses generally (and small law firms in particular). Good Lord, we have enough trouble getting clients to pay bills now -- and Mr. Rauner would have us try and collect an extra 5 or 6 or 9% for the benefit of the State? Impossible.

And, of course, a service tax, like a sales tax, is just about as regressive a tax as one can imagine. That means it impacts poor people far more harshly than rich folks. If Mr. Rauner wishes to buy a new Timex to replace the one he wore out in his commercials, the sales tax on that item is a negligible portion of his vast income. But the poor person who buys the same watch pays a far greater share of his income as sales tax even though he pays the same sales tax as does Mr. Rauner.

Please, Mr. Rauner, drop this talk of term limits and service taxes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NBC bangs down the gavel on "Bad Judge"

NBC's Bad Judge will not be retained
On Election Day, the people have spoken. Or, at least, the Suits at 30 Rock have spoken: NBC's execrable "Bad Judge" has been cancelled, according to an article by Debra Cassens Weiss posted today on the ABA Journal website.

Weiss cites a strong letter of protest by the Florida Association for Women Lawyers as helping to push the show over the cliff. That, and bad ratings.

Still, I'd like to think my tough, but fair review ("Bad Judge, Worse TV") may have helped.

Maybe a little, anyway.