We have strong leaders around here. I’m talking about Rahm Emanuel and Mike Madigan, who run the show in their respective political fiefdoms, the Chicago City Council and the Illinois House of Representatives.
But when they refuse to lead on issues like a living wage or the state budget, it starts to seem like we could do with a bit more democracy and a bit less dictatorship.
In Chicago, living wage advocates were “on Cloud Nine” on Wednesday when 21 aldermen signed on to an ordinance to establish a city minimum wage of $15 an hour, said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now. “We didn’t anticipate that level of support,” she said. “That’s double what we expected.”
The Raise Chicago Coalition issued a report laying out a strong case for a $15-an-hour minimum. It would add nearly $1.5 billion to the paychecks of the 32 percent of Chicago workers — disproportionately black and Latino — who make less than $15 an hour. It would stimulate the city’s economy, particularly in struggling low-income communities, with new consumer spending that would add more than 5,000 new jobs. It would mean an additional $74 million in state income taxes and $45 million more in sales tax revenue for the city.
The raise would mean a 4 percent increase in business costs, according to the study.
It would also reduce the backdoor subsidies that taxpayers give to supplement the low wages paid by large corporations. A University of Illinois study found that 52 percent of fast food workers qualify for public benefits, amounting to about $7 billion a year nationally. McDonald’s workers alone account for about $1.2 billion of that. A recent study by federal researchers found that big Walmart stores in Wisconsin cost taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million a year, just for Medicaid coverage for their employees.
Two-thirds of low-wage workers are employed by large, profitable corporations, according to the National Employment Law Project. And according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the largest retail firms pay significantly less than their small- and mid-size competitors.
It would seem like a no-brainer. But Emanuel has appointed a commission to study the question — the standard politician’s ploy to defer action and deflect attention from an issue. The assumption is that he will split the difference and come up with a lower number.
“We think we’ve made a case for a solid $15, and voters have backed it overwhelmingly,” said Johnson, referring to an advisory referendum in March where 87 percent of voters backed a $15 minimum. “Anything less than that is really just not enough.”
Emanuel owes it to Chicago communities to let the City Council vote on Raise Chicago’s ordinance.
In Springfield, Madigan is backing off the effort to extend a temporary income tax increase and supporting a budget that uses accounting tricks to paper over the resulting loss of $2 billion.
He’ll come back to it in the fall veto session after the election, he says. He’s letting Governor Quinn carry the issue in the election, forcing him to campaign against budget cuts while his opponent, Bruce Rauner, gets to campaign against a tax increase.
The alternative, taking responsibility and passing a viable budget, might have made it a little harder for a few of his members in November.
The use of “short-term, stop-gap measures to limp through at least the first portion of the fiscal year …would shift a perilous amount of risk onto community-based organizations that carry out many state programs and services,” according to David Lloyd, director of the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, in testimony before the House Revenue Committee on Tuesday.
A stop-gap budget would halt the state’s progress on paying off its bills to service providers, which still amount to $5 billion, Lloyd said. Faced with uncertainty, agencies will be forced to cut services and staff, and some will have to close.
“Members of the General Assembly need to ask themselves what sets Illinois apart that might explain our poor economy,” he said. “Is it supposedly high taxes? Taxes as a percentage of personal income are higher in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Arkansas (just to name a few). Or is it our state’s poor finances, worst-in-the-nation credit ratings, and reputation for kicking the can down the road?”
Or maybe it’s political leadership that rates the perpetuation of its own power more highly than the well-being of the people it’s supposed to serve.