Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wisconsin governor tries to rally Illinois business leaders

By Jamey Dunn

As pension reform talks flounder in Illinois, a polarizing national figure drew union protests today in Springfield.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spoke to a gathering of business leaders today at their annual lobbying event in Springfield. Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s decision to invite Walker was not meant to incite disagreement. Rather, the group wanted to contrast the ways that Wisconsin and Illinois have sought to address budget deficits. Whitley said Wisconsin avoided a tax increase and encouraged economic growth by implementing business friendly policies such as tax breaks and reducing regulation. He said Illinois lawmakers should be “conscious” of what is happening in neighboring states and concerned about keeping the state competitive. “There are economic consequences to bad public policies,” Whitley said.

But Whitley also warned that unions should be prepared for change. “It appears that things are changing. Wisconsin made very bold action this past year. Indiana just passed right to work legislation just a few weeks ago. I think organized labor in the country recognizes that things that have been in the past are going to be subject to change,” Whitley said. “We cannot sustain the trajectory that we have been on. We’ve raised taxes, and we still have budget problems. The solutions to those budget problems are very similar to what Wisconsin did, which was to control cost and cut spending. When you control cost and cut spending, then that goes directly to influence the life-public-employee-union members. And so, yes, they are at risk.” While Whitley said the group did not invite Walker because of his push for laws that strip Wisconsin labor unions of collective bargaining rights, he would not say whether he supported such moves. “That is not the issue before the General Assembly.”

Walker, who is facing a recall election in June, gave what seemed much like an election stump speech, touting what he sees as accomplishments from his year in office. He cited the state’s balanced budget, which he says was achieved through fundamental reforms instead of slashing core services or increasing taxes. “I think at the time, there were a lot of people down here at the state Capitol who are proponents of these tax increases, who looked at what was happening last year in Wisconsin and kind of proudly said, 'Well, we’re not going to do what Wisconsin did. Well, clearly the state government in Illinois didn’t,” Walker said. “Obviously things haven’t gotten any better when it comes to the state budget down here.” Walker blamed his recall election on “union bosses” and national union organizations that see him as a threat to their power.

He also cracked wise about his revival of an old tourism slogan, “Escape to Wisconsin,” which Walker brought back as an attempt to appeal to businesses after Illinois increased its income tax rate last year.

“I’m not concerned about Gov. Walker trying to poach Illinois jobs," Whitley told those in attendance. "Illinois is the fifth largest state in the country. We have job growth going on.” He said he is encouraged that Illinois leaders are working to address some of the business community’s biggest concerns, such as growing pension and Medicaid costs. “Even our governor, who as most all of you know, has had very liberal tendencies, very socialist tendencies for years. Even some might say radical tendencies. A month ago [he] stood up and gave a budget message that was not too much different than what you and I and the Illinois chamber would like to hear our chief executive officer talk about.”

While Walker drew a group of attendees to the event that was comparable to previous years, he also brought out a large crowd of union protesters upset with his policies. Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said that inviting Walker to speak “shows for one thing how out of touch from regular people those corporate lobbyists and corporate chieftains really are.” Lindall said protesters who turned out today from multiple unions, including private sector affiliations, represent the hard-working core of the state’s middle class. Protester Cary Quick said: “Myself and many of my brothers and sisters that are union members came out to give Scott Walker an unwelcome to Illinois and ask him to go back … and take back all his union-busting, corporate bolstering political ideas to Wisconsin with him — to where he can await his soon-to-come unemployment and allow Wisconsin to get themselves back on track.” Quick said he plans to travel to Wisconsin in the coming months to campaign against Walker.

Quick, who works as a mental health technician at the Choate Developmental Center in the southern Illinois city of Anna, says he came to Springfield to send a message to lawmakers that moves such as Walker’s attacks on public employee unions “would not be tolerated” in Illinois. Quick said he is worried about losing pension benefits, as well as Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to close several state facilities. While Choate is not on the list for potential closure, Quick said he is concerned that facility closures in the area would hurt his community. Union County, where Anna is located, had a 13.6 percent unemployment rate in February. Walker and Illinois public employee unions do agree on one thing: Both say that Quinn’s proposal to close several state facilities and layoff workers would be bad for Illinois’ economy. “All those things will have a negative impact on public employees in the state,” Walker said.

But Quinn insists that the closures have to take place to balance the state’s budget.

Quinn steered clear of Walker’s appearance, instead going to Chicago to announce that Lafarge North America, a concrete company, plans to relocate its Virginia headquarters to the Chicago area. The company says it will bring about 90 jobs. “Well, they’ve had some tough times up there since he got elected governor. They’ve lost jobs,” Quinn said at the Chicago event about Walker. “And we certainly don’t want to follow his prescriptions when it comes the economic growth.”

Quinn, who has been a vocal critic of Walker’s polices in the past, said neighboring states should work together to improve the region instead of nursing rivalries. “Our focus in not on any other state. We believe in cooperation with our Midwestern neighbors. …We think our approach of investing in important things and investing in human beings and their education is the best way to get job creation.”

Quinn’s hopes of reforming the state’s underfunded public pension systems seem to be struggling, as public employee unions have announced that they are not negotiating with the legislative working group. Michael Carrigan, Illinois AFL-CIO president, said the unions are asking for data that they have not been given, as well as assurances that the lawmakers in the group can negotiate on behalf of Quinn and the four legislative leaders. “Our unions are firmly committed to negotiating a solution to the pension funding crisis. However, to go forward, we need both the data supporting any proposals and a commitment that the representatives with whom we engage are authorized to speak for the governor and the legislative leaders,” Carrigan said in a written statement from the We Are One Coalition, which represents several unions in the state.

Quinn had set today as the deadline for the pension working group to present its ideas, but Brooke Anderson, a Quinn spokeswoman, said the group, as well as another working group that plans to propose Medicaid cuts, asked for more time. She said both sets of recommendations should be presented by the end of the week. “You should not worry about holding your breath too long because it will be very shortly,” Quinn told reporters in Chicago today.

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