Bruce Rauner is "Scott Walker on steroids"

Longtime Windy City op-ed writer John Kass probably deserves some sort of an award just for this headline about Illinois’ new Republican governor. Bruce Rauner is Scott Walker on steroids. But is that bad? It’s somewhat encouraging to see observers in the Land of Lincoln not only coming to grips (finally) with the dismal state of their financial affairs, but recognizing that Wisconsin may have established a model for them to follow. Kass, a frequent critic of both political parties, is finding some virtue in the tough medicine approach.

Yet these are but mere crumbs to the crusty loaf Gov. Rauner served up in his state budget message on Wednesday, a challenge to entrenched Democrats and the public unions that help elect them.

Rauner pushed to move newly hired public employees into a pension system more in keeping with what taxpayers have in the private sector, rather than the old-fashioned government meat-gravy-and-more-meat-and-gravy pensions.

There are thousands of state employees with six-figure public pensions, Rauner said, an unconscionable luxury while so many taxpayers wonder whether Cholula sauce will improve the dry dog food we’ll be eating when we’re old.

Rauner’s budget, he said, will end “the irresponsible and reckless practices of the past, and make sure they will never happen again. We make difficult choices that no one wants to make. It is what this occasion requires.

Kass is talking about the new budget proposal which Rauner outlined yesterday, and it’s got the Democrats and their usual merry band of supporters spitting nails. It’s based on the unpopular concept of math, which indicates that Illinois is currently swirling around near the bottom of the drain and will require some hard choices to put them on the path back toward long term solvency.

“We have been living beyond our means, spending money that Illinois taxpayers cannot afford,” Rauner said.

The proposed cuts include $1.5 billion from Medicaid, plus hundreds of millions from state worker health insurance, aid to local governments and higher education. The plan would also cut deep into state aid to mass transit…

“Rauner basically said to families across Illinois, ‘I’m not going to reach into your wallet and take any more of your money,'” said Christine Rasmussen, Illinois Policy Institute.

The governor also told the lawmakers his plan to junk the state pension system and replace it with a 401k-style system that he says could save $2.2 billion in the next fiscal year.

Rauner barely had time to make it off the stage before one representative of the Illinois Federation of Teachers declared the proposals to be clearly illegal. That probably won’t come as much of a surprise, since the teachers and other public employee unions have been living high on the hog for so long that they likely believe their benefits are some sort of constitutionally assured right. But if Rauner can pull this off it will be a watershed moment in the history of Illinois.

Perhaps the most startling and potentially brilliant aspect of his proposal is a move to essentially eliminate the union pension system and transfer the programs over to something like the 401Ks which most of us invest in as part of our retirement planning. If successful, this one change alone will save the state an estimated $2.2B per year, and that’s not chicken feed. The cuts to Medicaid, mass transit and education will be hard pills to swallow, but as the Governor said, they’ve been living beyond their means for far too long and the bills for that party have come due.

Unfortunately, this is all still just a proposal. The Democrats control the legislature and won’t go down without a fight. But even if Rauner isn’t successful in getting all the specifics of his budget proposal through, he will at least force them to defend their choices and explain to the people who keep electing them why they are taxed so heavily and still have nothing to show for it.

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