Is the creation of our state budget analogous to the emancipation of slaves?

In presenting his budget plan to the General Assembly last week, Rauner compared his concern for the budget to President Abraham Lincoln’s deliberation over whether to issue a military order to free the slaves in the South, quoting Lincoln in saying we need “to think anew and act anew.

Putting aside the egotism of anyone who would dare to draw similarities between budget decisions and the decision to emancipate millions of African-American slaves, Rauner’s budget seeks not to emancipate exploited working-class people but to leave them, and our state, more economically vulnerable.

Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan for Illinois targets workers.
Gov. Bruce Rauner

Rauner said that “families know that every member can’t get everything they want,” suggesting the need for budget cuts, especially for spoiled family members.  Chief among these overprivileged, he argues, are current state workers.

Rauner proposes pension reform that would reduce those workers, with the exception of police and firemen, to drawing a “Tier 2” pension, which is presumably diminutive and second-class. But aside from these state employees, who are hardly chief among the economically advantaged members of this imagined Illinois “family,” his suggested cuts to local government, health care and transit target the same family members who are always asked to sacrifice.

This, along with its empty rhetorical strategy about “family,” is typical of Republicans (and some Democrats) who since the 1980s have suggested slashing budgets and cutting taxes as even-handed solutions to our economic woes.  But these “austerity measures” are the most strongly felt by workers whose lives are already shaped by austerity.

As such, what Rauner did not say in his budget address is more telling than what he said.

On other recent occasions, Rauner has suggested that creating “right to work” zones in Illinois could create economic growth. But this strategy would only cause micro-level capital flight, compelling companies to move from one town to the next — or from one county to the next — to evade unions, a development that would ultimately depress workers’ wages and other benefits. This policy would exacerbate wealth inequality because workers who have to struggle for mere survival will not generate the consumer spending that makes our economy churn and grow.

Rauner also failed to mention in this speech his desire to break apart public employee unions.  This policy would depress wages and put a relatively stable working-class population at risk.

Making public-sector workers into service employees akin to fast food and big-box retailer employees is a race-to-the-bottom approach rather than one of economic uplift for workers and our state’s economy in general.

These workers, who represent one of the last bastions of stable employment for working-class people — and in Chicago, who are often women and people of color — should be reinforced, not degraded.  In many Illinois cities and towns, public-sector employees’ ability to make a living wage is one of the only economic factors stabilizing their communities.  Threatening their livelihoods exposes how the “family members” who can least afford it will sacrifice the most under Rauner’s budget plan.

Last, pundits expected Rauner to announce massive budget cuts to Illinois’ universities and colleges.  But he demurred, instead mentioning only that the state will invest more in early education. This silence on higher education suggests he’s well aware of the hypocrisy in cutting college education funding, thus narrowing established pathways to economic mobility, while saying that he wants to “make education our top priority again.”

On one issue, however, Rauner should be applauded, assuming the governor follows his rhetoric with action.

His address mentioned how our prisons are overcrowded, corrections officers are overworked and that prisons should be sites of rehabilitation.  Amen. This part of his address came as a surprise, and let’s hope he embraces not just reform but a radical restructuring of our prison system. This will indeed save our state millions, but more important, it will begin correct systemic injustice and weaken the “New Jim Crow.”

Rauner did not explain his interest in prison reform in this speech, but even if he is motivated by economic necessity to release and slow the future imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, then he might be slightly more justified in comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, whose emancipation order came largely out of military necessity.

Erik Gellman is an associate professor of history at Roosevelt University.

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