Eaton: Wisconsin has a message: Are we listening in Illinois?
By Fran Eaton June 6, 2012 7:08PM
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:37PM
So, how did you spend last Saturday? Doing yard work, celebrating a graduation or wedding, swimming, sunbathing, barbecuing?
Nearly 100 Illinoisans got up at the crack of dawn to board buses headed to Racine, Wis. Organized by Americans for Prosperity, they joined with their neighbors to the north to work against the historic recall effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker.
“This is history,” said Karen Hayes, of Palos Heights.
“It’s a battle between good and evil,” Oak Forest’s Iris Huisenga said.
“We’re hoping what’s happening in Wisconsin wakes us up in Illinois,” said Rick Ayers, of Oswego.
Still raw from the state income tax hike, an unsolved pension disaster, cuts in Medicaid care and a bigger gambling expansion threat, the Illinoisans on those buses headed to Wisconsin were angry.
“Look at the national debt, the state’s disastrous budget, skyrocketing food and gas prices,” said Jan Shaw, of the West Suburban Patriots. “The Tea Party is working hard to make a difference, and this is one way to do it.”
The only way to deal with Illinois’ fiscal crisis, with its billions of unpaid debt and long-term pension liability, is to revamp the system, the Illinois volunteers said.
Revamping the system is exactly what Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican majority in the Legislature initiated shortly after they were voted into office in November 2010. Their efforts to renegotiate public-employee union contracts and revisit benefits stirred a month-long, live-in protest at the state Capitol.
Tensions heightened when union workers initiated an effort to recall Walker and his lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, as well as six GOP members of the General Assembly.
“Lawmakers’ wives and families were threatened and harassed,” one Racine radio talk show host told the crowd at a Racine Tea Party rally Saturday afternoon. “Despite the fear tactics, they voted to protect Wisconsin’s budget and future.”
Wisconsin had no choice but to make drastic changes. It took courage to break the cycle and resist public-sector union domination.
And that same courage was on the line in Tuesday’s balloting, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told about 2,500 who gathered at an open field in Racine County, surrounded by farmhouses and grain silos.
“The whole country is watching Wisconsin,” Ryan said as the crowd cheered. “What happens here Tuesday will send shock waves. This is a momentum breaker or a momentum maker. What lawmaker would be willing to make these changes if Walker loses Tuesday?”
Ryan said Walker’s reforms were working, despite claims to the opposite. The last Wisconsin state budget saved $1 billion. Property tax bills were lowered for the first time in 12 years. Education is being updated, as students get opportunities to learn that many had never had before.
“Let’s reward the governor by supporting him Tuesday,” Kleefisch told the crowd. “He has stood bravely with the taxpayers. Now it’s time for you to stand with him.”
After the rally, the Illinois delegation piled back onto the buses and headed toward a middle-class Racine neighborhood where they distributed brochures to more than 5,000 households, challenging Democrat John Lehman, a state Senate candidate.
Lehman was the only Democrat to win Tuesday. His successful challenge in recalling Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard means the Wisconsin Senate now is controlled by Democrats — changing and likely slowing down any further dramatic reforms through the Legislature.
As the Illinois folks walked block after block along four parallel streets, it seemed clear that Tuesday’s decision on Walker would be close. That was wrong. By late Tuesday night, the votes were in, and Walker and his reform measures had won a resounding victory by 7 percentage points. More than 65 percent of Wisconsin voters went to the polls.
And that brings us back to Illinois. The Wisconsin battle will, without fail, make its way to Illinois. Sooner or later, our lawmakers will be faced with the same difficult choices as those in Wisconsin.
Will we scrub a failing system and start over with different goals and ideals? Will we find a way to survive the budget and pension crises without driving residents and businesses away to more tax-friendly states? Will we need the help of our neighbors to the north to turn things around?
“We look forward to the day when Wisconsinites can return the favor,” said David From, Illinois executive director for Americans for Prosperity, as the busload of tired activists returned to the southwest suburbs. “We hope that very soon we’ll be in a place to make major reforms here in Illinois.”
Can’t argue with that.
Fran Eaton is a Southland resident who co-founded and edits the conservative political blog illinoisreview.com