Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A new day in Illinois and a new chance for children in poor schools

[Cross-posted at www.capitalfax.blogspot.com]

The first day of veto session feels like the first day of school -- a lot of excitement to see old friends and a feeling of anticipation of something big around the corner.

The big news is that the freshman class (to continue the analogy) will be a supermajority for Democrats in the Senate. That's exciting.

It's particularly exciting because it means the 37 men and women of the Senate Democratic Caucus are now just as important as the Blagojevich Administration when it comes to setting budgets and policies. When a consensus is reached by the Senate Democratic Caucus, it is the public will and can override a veto by the Governor. That's a very big deal and represents a tremedous shift in power over to the 37 Senate Democrats. Particularly because President Jones is said to be very open to representing the consensus of his caucus, that means the sparkling opportunity and heavy responsibility of implementing progressive policies lies on the shoulders of the 37.

The biggest opportunity for social and economic progress is raising the state's 3% income tax and with the extra three billion or so buying better educations for the hundreds of thousands of children in poor neighborhoods who suffer from poorer schools and worse teachers.

There has been no significant progress on this front in at least a decade in the state, and the predictable result of kids dropping out from poor school districts and robbing them of the American promise of equal opportunity has blighted another generation.

For the last four years, Governor Blagojevich's clear opposition to any increase in the state's income tax has stymied efforts to raise the 3% income tax and buy better educations with the money (as well as provide some property tax relief -- a secondary concern in the scope of problems in my opinion).

Unfortunately, Governor Blagojevich decided to reiterate his pledge not to raise the state's 3% income tax.

Fortunately, the 37 Senate Democrats need not consider the Governor's veto as relevant to their consensus.

And very fortunately, some of the bright freshmen Senators campaigned on raising the income tax (and providing property tax relief).

(As a quick digression, the freshman class of Democratic Senators will likely be considered a major 'impact' class. Michael Frerichs, Michael Bond, Dan Kotowski and Michael Noland will be policy-oriented legislators who will have an immediate impact on crafting progressive policy. I haven't met Linda Holmes, but I've heard very good things about her too. And on another digression, Michael Bond and his campaign staff should be giving lessons on how to run a field operation -- it was the most sophisticated campaign I've ever seen).

Of course, many Republican Senators have long understood the need to raise the state income tax and (more importantly to their constituents) cut the local property tax. The potential defection of a handful of Democratic Senators who might calculate their districts won't support a 5% state income tax can and should be made up by Republican Senators, particularly representing poorer rural districts, to withstand an expected veto.

And keep in mind: 10% of voters last week cast their votes for a candidate who explicitly called for a 5% income tax. That's extraordinary. That's about as close to a mandate as a tax increase can ever get. And that means that the potential blowback is likely rather low (at least in those districts, like Senator Syverson's and Senator Luechtefeld's where Rich Whitney earned around 25% of the vote. 25%!).

Put another way, 60% of voters supported a left or center-left candidate.

If there was ever a time for a 5% state income tax, 2007 is it.

And while the dynamics of the House may not have changed significantly, the Speaker and I'd venture a majority of the House Democratic caucus have expressed support for a tax swap. The House did pass a tax swap bill out in the late 90s only to suffocate from Pate Philip's Senate opposition.

There's still quite a bit of consensus-building to do: what accountability reforms need to be included with the billions in new spending, what tax cuts (either property or low-income) need to be included and what group of legislators can take the lead on crafting this consensus are all unanswered questions. But the future for poor Illinois children has not been brighter in a long time -- so long as our legislators decide that they have the opportunity and responsibility to craft a legislative consensus around a 5% income tax. The Governor's leadership on progressive policy (such as with the indexed minimum wage hike) will be in different arenas.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A $7.50 state minimum wage -- indexed!

Governor Blagojevich and Mayor Daley came out last week in support of a $7.50 state minimum wage and will push for its implementation during the veto session in November. Even better, they both called for an indexed minimum wage, so that every year wages will adjust upwards based on inflation. (A flat minimum wage means every year it is worth less -- an indexed wage stays constant in terms of actual purchasing power).

As I've blogged previously, Cook County voters (thanks to Lt. Governor Pat Quinn's political team) will have the chance to vote for the minimum wage increase on an advisory referendum on Tuesday's ballot.

The reason I bring all this up is I've been meaning to cite an Economist article I've been carrying around for a month. In the October 7th edition, the magazine reports that the United KIngdom's minimum wage rose on October 15th to 5.35 pounds per hour. That's $10.08 an hour!

Think about that: ten bucks an hour minimum wage in England.

That's what it *should* be in the United States. You can't live on less than ten bucks an hour. So it should be illegal to pay anyone less than ten bucks an hour. And because the Brits manage to do quite will with a ten dollar an hour minimum wge, we should do well too.

It really is shocking to think that the Congress hasn't raised the minimum wage past $5.15 an hour for a decade and that's one of the most compelling reasons to help elect a Democratic majority -- the economic values of the governing coalition in D.C. are lined up against people with jobs.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Blagojevich-Topinka-Whitney and Bean-Scheurer-McSweeney races show the need for ranked ballots

There are three high-profile three-way races in Illinois. Both of them show what an antiquated election system we still use and the need to modernize our elections to allow for ranked ballots.

In one of the most hotly-contested congressional races in the country, incumbent Melissa Bean (D) is challenged by David McSweeney (R) and Bill Scheurer (M). Scheurer is running on a progressive platform and is thus a threat to the Bean campaign much more than the McSweeney campaign. Bean looks like the likely victor and is running on a Rahm Emanuel Democratic record (embrace most of the Bush economic agenda) with the implied calculation that her affluent northwest suburban district likes economic policies that benefit higher incomes. For voters who don't like the Bush tax cuts or corporate-backed free trade policies or the Iraqi occupation, it's a tough pill to swallow: vote for the guy with the platform you agree with and risk electing the guy you really don't agree with or vote for the woman who is with you about half the time and send the message that it's OK to embrace most of the Bush economic agenda.

Most progressives are sucking it up in order to elect a Democratic majority, but imagine the consternation if McSweeney wins and the margin of victory is half of the Scheurer vote.

This is all because we don't have a runoff election to ensure the winner earns a majority of the vote. And because we don't have a runoff, the majority of voters can split the vote (in this case between Bean and Scheurer) allowing a candidate to get elected that the majority of voters rejected (in this hypothetical, McSweeney. That's dumb. But it happens a lot.

The solution is to have a runoff election, like most municipalities do. A better solution is to hold an instant runoff election.

On Tuesday, Oakland, Minneapolis and Pierce County (WA) will all vote to implement instant runoff voting. I think they will all win. They would join San Francisco, Burlington VT, Ireland and Australia by using instant runoff voting.

Here are the campaign websites (with a particular link to the neat flash demonstrations of IRV on each site if they have one -- they are worth checking out).

Minneapolis Fun flash demonstration on how IRV works called Elect-A-Date
Pierce County, WA Their flash demonstration

Ranked ballots with instant runoff voting is a little more resonant, perhaps, in the gubernatorial race where both the Blagojevich and Topinka campaigns believe the Green Party's Rich Whitney's campaign is pulling away their voters. Rich Miller is making the point that all eyes for the last four days of the campaign should be on the 10-15% of the electorate that are now (pollsters say) planning to vote for Whitney to see which way they will break as it becomes clear that Whitney won't win.

The trouble is, lots of voters would like to vote for a 6% income tax in exchange for more money for schools and a lower property tax as well as send a message for cleaner government, but do have a preference between Topinka and Blagojevich.

Our stupid voting system doesn't allow that to happen. So the major parties actively discourage third party candidates from getting on the ballot which is a major draw of resources for everyone (as an election lawyer, I might benefit from that, but it is a waste).

If Whitney gets more than 5% of the vote, and he almost certainly will, this problem will get a lot worse, because then the Green Party will become an established party in Illinois and thus get access to the ballot by filing for a Green Party primary election. That will likely create lots of three-way races in 2008.

The demand for a modern voting system like instant runoff voting is growing in Illinois. And while I'm a proud Democratic Party member, I also believe we're better off with a multi-party system and three or four candidates on the ballot instead of one or two.

I'm curious what others think about our election system now given three candidates on the ballot and whether we ought to hold a runoff or instant runoff in the future.