Try and name one difference between the policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that isn't of importance to evangelicals -- I'll wait. Both are unnecessarily slashing budgets and laying off workers, to the detriment of public services like schools and healthcare while clamoring to throw more tax dollars at corporations. Both have made disparaging remarks about public workers and the unions that help them organize for a better work environment. Both have a long track record of cronyism and corruption. But one is a Republican being groomed for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, and the latter a former chief of staff for President Obama.
The only noteworthy difference between these two Midwestern political giants is the letter after each of their names. Just like the Republicans who control the Wisconsin legislature through unfair gerrymandering and go out of their way to redistribute financial and environmental wealth from the people to the elite, the Democrats who control the Illinois statehouse do the same, and have also solidified their grip on the state through highly questionable political boundaries that they themselves have drawn. And regardless of the party, both sides of the corporate party's one coin are exacting a near-identical agenda of enriching their campaign benefactors on behalf of taxpayers and public workers.
Not paying your workers what they're owed is against the law. But Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, just signed Senate Bill 1 into law, which will slash the pensions of state workers by over $160 billion over 30 years. Senate Bill 1 was a double-cross by the Democrats in charge of both legislative houses, a giant middle finger to hundreds of thousands of firefighters, teachers, garbage collectors and other public employees who worked decades with the understanding that they would have a secure retirement at the end.
The kicker -- these public workers don't receive Social Security income during their retirement, because Article 13, Section 5 of the Illinois constitution guarantees workers that their pensions are immune from conniving politicians.
Senate Bill 1 was a double-cross precisely because SB 2404, a bipartisan deal brokered between both parties, was a compromise that Senate President John Cullerton made with the GOP that still unfortunately cuts pensions those workers earned, but to a lesser degree of $46 billion over that same time period. SB 1 was instead chosen since it "saved more money," while legislators offered the false excuse of the state of Illinois not having enough money. Such a falsehood is insulting, given that Illinois ranks 5th out of all states in Gross Domestic Product this year, and Illinois' legislators have had no problem forking over millions of tax dollars to corporations at the same time they have their hands in teachers' pockets.
It's already a scandal that pensions in Illinois have gone unfunded for so long -- this systemic theft of workers' earned income is partly the fault of the same ratings agencies that rated bogus subprime mortgages as AAA in the years leading up to the crisis saying that the growing bubble meant the state didn't have to contribute to pensions; partly because Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley refused to fund city workers' pensions during his tenure, and partly because the state legislature continued to neglect the pension fund after the mortgage bubble burst in 2010. This is particularly telling, in that states would never dream of defaulting on debts incurred through bond issues brokered by big Wall Street banks but don't seem to give a second's thought to breaking their promise to pay the state's public workforce money they've earned and been promised in the state's own constitution.
Pay for Play Politics
Much of the blame for this pension theft can be shifted to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, recently outed as a lackey of the innocuously-named State Policy Network (SPN) used to chip away at public worker pensions. Documents recently leaked to The Guardian show that the SPN and the more notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), both of which are corporate-funded institutions that exist to buy influence in state legislatures nationwide, aim to gradually change state pension plans into 401(k) plans that siphon workers' earned income into large revenue streams for Wall Street. The New York Times explained how 401(k) plans make retirees pay tens of thousands of dollars in superfluous fees over a long period of time, which go directly into the banks' balance sheets rather than the retirees' future.
The Guardian reported on leaked documents showing Mayor Emanuel being positioned to lobby for the conversion of pensions into 401(k) plans at the Illinois statehouse in a scaremongering campaign to give justification for pension "reform," sung to the narrative of "out of control" deficits. This is particularly ironic and insulting, considering Rahm Emanuel's history of looting public assets to reward his rich friends as mayor of Chicago. Emanuel used the deficit as an excuse to close 50 public schools in Chicago, while making taxpayers fork over $55 million in tax-incremented financing (TIF) to DePaul University for a new sports stadium and $50 million in tax breaks to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which was also his top campaign contributor in the last election with a hefty $200,000 donation.
The Illinois legislature's hypocrisy is also astounding. They cite their fear over ballooning deficits as justification for taking away public employees' sole retirement income, yet they're simultaneously contemplating an $88 million tax break package for Archer Daniels Midland, Office Depot and Univar. Coincidentally, Archer Daniels Midland just gave House Speaker Madigan, who forced Senate Bill 1 through the House, $10,000 in campaign contributions in the 2012 election cycle. Calls to Speaker Madigan's office for this story were not returned.
Time For A New Party
All of us who have been continuously coerced into voting for one party that continuously lets us down so the other party that would continuously let us down won't win have had enough. The dichotomy of Wisconsin Republicans and Illinois Democrats is just one example of how two supposedly opposing parties can do almost the exact same thing just one state line apart from the other.
It's time for the creation of a new political force that organizes from a purely populist standpoint. We need a new party, with fresh faces that run on a desire to make change, rather than a career from within the system. This party needs a new brand not associated with existing third parties that expend millions of dollars on losing presidential campaigns, but one that organizes for ballot access and wins at the local level.
This party needs to separate itself from the Republican and Democratic parties by refusing to accept any donations from corporations, banks and developers, and has an unapologetically populist platform. We need a party that doesn't rely on flooding TV markets with advertising to get its message out, but one that relies on bettering the lives of ordinary people in their own communities to recruit a mass base of supporters. And only through the support of this mass base of volunteers can this new party win elections and give regular people real decision-making power.
It's time to take this populist movement we've built in the streets over the past few years from not only protesting those in power, but also directly taking power away from the corrupt officials who have had it for too long.
(This article was originally posted on ReaderSupportedNews.org)