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What Issue Means Most to You?

Tue, Oct 28, 2014

Ahead of the November 4 election, StreetWise asked local interest groups and columnists to tell us what policies they care about at the local, state and national levels.

Keeping Promises and Minimum Wage Rally

Senior citizens and their allies rallied for the Keeping the Promise Ordinance for public housing and a $15 minimum wage on October 7. Minimum wage was the most often cited issue among the people StreetWise surveyed.

Illinois Policy Institute: It’s the economy
By Scott Reeder

Folks keep asking me, “Who do you think will win the governor’s race?”

I can only shrug and say, “I have no idea.”

I really don’t.

But one thing I am certain about is both candidates are spending way too much time focusing on why we shouldn’t vote for other guy.

Instead we ought to be hearing why each candidate thinks he is worthy of our votes.

This could well prove to be one of the most pivotal elections in Illinois history.

Why? Well, it’s the economy.

Of course there are lots of other issues facing the state: education funding, unfunded government pension liabilities, the state paying its bills late, escalating tax rates and cuts to core government services.

But an improved economy would address all of these issues.
To put it in the words of John F. Kennedy, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Unfortunately, state lawmakers have taken a different tact: raising taxes.

In 2011, lawmakers voted to jack up income taxes 67 percent. They told us the tax hike would be temporary, but now some politicians are backpedaling on that pledge.

After the tax hike, monthly employment growth slowed down by 62 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The tax hike has taken a terrible toll not only on how The Land of Lincoln is viewed by outsiders but also by ourselves.

Who can forget the Gallup Poll from the last year? One in 4 Illinoisans said our state is the “worst possible state to live.” No state’s population held their home in lower esteem than ours.

Folks are voting with their feet too.

Illinois ranks second in the nation for the number of people leaving.

The number of people working in Illinois continues to drop as well. In fact, Illinois has the lowest labor force participation rate of any state in the Midwest.

So where are the jobs and the people moving to?

Lower tax states.

Illinois will not be able to improve its economy if it continues on this high tax path.

And many of the state’s other problems will not improve until the economy does.

Scott Reeder is journalist in residence for the Illinois Policy Institute following 25 years of covering local government and work with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity to establish a national network of statehouse bureaus.

ONE Northside: Bring fairness to state tax code
By Eugene Lim

I tutor folks who want to take the GED at a homeless prevention agency near Chicago. I teach students how to multiply fractions and refresh their memories on the geometry of triangles. We’re proud of the work we do together. Unfair life circumstances like poverty, racism, sexism, and plain old bad luck kept them — as well as me, long ago — from finishing high school the first time around, but we haven’t let these things stop us from trying to learn and improve ourselves. We know we’re worth more than poverty, racism, and sexism would have us believe.

What does threaten to stop us, however, is funding cuts for social programs like the one I teach for. Sadly, a focus on cuts as the solution to budget woes has been the trend over the past several decades. Earlier in October, my agency had a grim meeting where we debated how to address significant federal budget cuts. We are proud of the good work we do together. All human beings deserve an education. And we all depend on government – be it for public schools, for reliable transportation infrastructure, or for human services. I am healthy and stable thanks to Medicaid. I utilize this state health insurance program since all I’ve been able to find is part-time, low-wage work since I graduated from college.

So, no issue is more important to me this November than increasing revenue at the state and federal levels and bringing more fairness into our tax code.

I organize around economic justice and tax code reforms with ONE Northside in Chicago. We are working to pass HB390, which would close three corporate tax loopholes and raise $445 million annually in order to pay back-owed bills to social service agencies. This bill originated in Governor Quinn’s office. Bruce Rauner says he supports closing tax loopholes, but he has not been specific as to which ones. We also believe corporate tax reform must start with transparency. We support HB3627, which would require publicly traded corporations to disclose how much they pay in taxes to Illinois. This is important because 2/3 of corporations operating in Illinois pay ZERO income tax dollars to Illinois. HB3627 will allow us to understand which corporations are paying what, so we can create a fair and logical tax code that brings in enough revenue to pay for the key services (like education, social services, and infrastructure improvements) that we need and value.

This November, I will consider candidates based on the courage they show in standing up to Big Corporations and making them pay their fair share, so that my students will have the resources they need to get an education and I can maintain my health.

Eugene Lim lives in Rogers Park and is an economic justice leader with ONE Northside.

Tom Suhrbur: Raise the minimum wage

During the 2014 election campaign, President Obama called for raising the federal minimum hourly wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10, hardly a living wage but an improvement for many low-paid workers. Twenty-three states and municipalities have enacted minimum wage laws above the federal rate. None are as high as the $10.10 proposed by Obama.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal minimum hourly wage is worth 51 percent less in spending power than the 1968 minimum, thanks to inflation. In addition, since 1968, labor productivity (output per hour) of the U.S. workforce has steadily increased. Unfortunately, the lion’s share of gains in productivity has gone to the top income earners since 1980.

All taxpayers subsidize low-wage hiring by business. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the poverty line is $11,670 annually for a single person. But at the federal minimum wage rate, workers will earn less than $14,790 annually: that’s still low enough to qualify for public assistance such as food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. In other words, taxpayers are subsidizing the profit margins for low-wage employers though public assistance.

“A free labor market may work very well for corporate CEOs and superstars like Michael Jordan … [but] in an unregulated labor market, employers have the power to keep wages low.” – Tom Suhrbur, retired organizer with the Illinois Education Association

Conservative free market ideologues oppose the very existence of minimum wage laws. This explains candidate Bruce Rauner’s initial response when questioned about the laws. Conservatives like Rauner view union contracts and minimum wage laws as an infringement of their individual liberty. In their minds, the employer and individual worker should be free to bargain their compensation without union or government involvement. Wages and compensation should be decided in a competitive labor market.

However, a free labor market may work very well for corporate CEOs and superstars like Michael Jordan and other highly talented individuals; they have bargaining power with their employers. In an unregulated labor market, employers have the power to keep wages low. As I have heard from workers on numerous occasions in union organizing campaign, “my boss said that if I am not satisfied with the pay, find a job somewhere else. There are many others willing to take what I am paying you.”

Only 3.3 million U.S. workers are paid at or below $7.25. Raising the wage will put pressure on employers for many others making more than $10.10. Employers will be forced to compete for labor at a high rate of pay. An increase in the minimum wage would raise the standard of living for millions of families across the U.S.

Tom Suhrbur is vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society and is a former teacher and a retired organizer with the Illinois Education Association.

Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law: Raise the minimum wage
By Wendy Pollack

No one who works should live in poverty. Makes sense, right? Yet Illinois’s minimum wage is only $8.25 an hour. That means a full-time, year-round minimum wage worker, who often provides the lone or a significant source of income for his or her family, earns only $17,000 a year. That’s below the poverty level for a family of three.

Moreover, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation or gains in worker productivity. If the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation, it would be $10.86 an hour today. And if the wage were pegged to worker productivity, it would be more than $18 an hour.

I invite you to join the effort to raise Illinois’s minimum wage. On the November 4 election ballot you will be asked if you support raising the Illinois minimum wage to $10 an hour effective January 1, 2015. Please respond yes. All politicians in Illinois must hear from voters that raising the minimum wage is necessary and that immediate action is required.

But responding yes at the ballot box is just the first step. A bill must pass the state legislature to actually raise the wage. Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 3718 would raise the minimum wage to $9.25 soon after passage, to $10 a year later, and to $10.65 the following year. Please contact your state senators and representatives and ask them to vote for Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 3718. For more information, visit the Raise Illinois site at http://www.raiseillinois.com/.

Raising the Illinois minimum wage will help build momentum to raise the federal minimum wage and enact a minimum wage in the City of Chicago. Some Illinois workers are excluded from the Illinois minimum wage and rely on the federal law. They need a raise too. The Fair Minimum Wage Act (HR 1010), would raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, phased in within three years. In Chicago, an ordinance has been introduced by workers to raise the minimum wage to $15, phased in between one and four years, depending on the size of the employer; and Mayor Emanuel introduced an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $13, phased in over four years.

Raise Illinois’s minimum wage. Fight poverty. Join the Shriver Center and its Raise Illinois Coalition partners to ensure that low-income workers are no longer devalued.

Wendy Pollack is director of the Women’s Law & Policy Project at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Illinois Partners for Human Service: Unpaid bills
By Judith Gethner

In the cacophony of personal attacks from both sides of the Illinois Governor’s race, it’s easy to lose focus on the real issues facing our state. Crime, poverty, unemployment, housing, support for the disabled, elder care, pre-school education and after school programs; these are the seminal issues that really matter.

And they matter to ALL of us because there can be no economic renewal when you have stubbornly high unemployment; there can be no improvement in our collective quality of life if our streets aren’t safe or if our elders and other vulnerable members of our society are not cared for. “We are all in this together” is not some high-minded, left-leaning slogan, it’s an economic and sociological reality.

The issues listed above might seem to have no connective tissue that binds them all together. But, in fact, there is. The state’s effort to address these challenges is undertaken by the human services infrastructure. This infrastructure includes the thousands of community-based human service organizations who receive its funding. In the ongoing effort to make Illinois the place of our ideals, these organizations are the “boots on the ground.”

So, how well are we equipping our foot soldiers? The answer is not a happy one. For years, the budget for human services has been a favorite target for legislators looking to cut spending. In the last five years, the resources applied to human services has been cut 24 percent. The most recent budget, passed in June, provides barely enough money to keep the doors to human services open through the spring. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

Compounding the problem is the issue of timeliness in the state’s paying what is already owed to Human Services organizations. Operating on a shoestring already – these organizations often must wait six months to a year to get paid what they are owed. Some wonder if they will ever get paid.

Lastly, there is the issue of the administrative burdens hoisted on human service entities. Everyone agrees that accountability for results is critically important when using public funds to deliver human services. But we must find ways to achieve this in a manner that doesn’t divert already scarce resources to inefficient reporting requirements and unending paperwork.

To be sure, the beneficiaries of human service do not typically have a great deal of political clout. You are unlikely to see a vulnerable teen going straight from an after school program to a big donor gala. A mental health sufferer, who is focused on retaining shelter for the coming winter, is unlikely to be seen hobnobbing with politicos. An elderly person who is able to stay in their home instead of being institutionalized (thanks to human service programs) is probably not writing big checks to a political action committee.

But the irony is that investments in human services are actually the most important investments we can make to improve both the economy and the fabric of life in our state. Study after study shows that investments in the early stages of our social challenges more than pay for themselves by avoiding late-stage costs of recidivism, unemployment and community dysfunction.

Just like the bridges and roads we travel on, our human service system must be well-managed, maintained and renewed in order for people and communities to remain healthy, safe, and prepared for current and future economic challenges.

The airwaves are now deluged with character attacks from one candidate to another. More helpful would be a discussion about the character of Illinois and our commitment to solving our most pressing needs. Now that’s a character debate worth having.

Judith Gethner is executive director of Illinois Partners for Human Service, which has grown from a statewide coalition of 70 nonprofit partners of human service to over 800 organizations throughout Illinois.

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