Saturday, April 23, 2016

90 minutes with Senator David Luechtefeld

Now with Luechtefeld spelled correctly! And a note re K-12.

State Senator David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) is nearing the end of a 21 year career in Springfield (one that followed a career in secondary education). I was one of a group of IEA activists that met with him for 90 minutes on lobby day in Springfield on Wednesday--just a couple of days before the legislature acted to provide stop-gap funding for SIU. As we spoke, Luechtefeld was guardedly optimistic about stop-gap funding coming through. He voted for the eventual bill--as did everyone else in the Illinois Senate (there were a couple of dissenting votes in the House). We spoke to Luechtefeld essentially because others were speaking to other legislatures, and while Luechtefeld is nearing retirement he's respected by others in the local GOP caucus, so is influential.

Luechtefeld began smartly by saying that he recognized that SIUC was the 'most important institution' in his district, one he knew had been suffering for a long time from declining state funding, and declining enrollment, even before the current crisis. He noted the importance of SIUC to Carbondale in particular, describing the decline facing Carbondale in terms nearly as dire as those in my op-ed for the Southern the other day. Note his quote at the end of the Carbondale Times story on the stop-gap bill:
“Irreparable damage has been done to our universities and community colleges,” he said in a statement. “There are no real winners with today’s budget bill, only a sliver of relief is being provided. No one should applaud this solution or be running to take the credit.”
So Luechtefeld gets it--and he thus anticipated our main talking points. This is a good thing, of course. He could have mouthed some of the anti-higher ed rhetoric coming from the Governor's office, which essentially blames bloat, redundancy, and waste in higher ed for the state's failure to fund higher ed. But the fact that we all agreed on the problem made for a curious conversation . . .

IEA folks with Luechtefeld (the big guy in back)
There was naturally a fair amount of "who's to blame". Luechtefeld did not fully exonerate the governor, noting in particular that Rauner made unnecessary enemies by going after the unions so vigorously at the start of his term. But he naturally enough steered the conversation back to House Speaker Mike Madigan, noting that "He basically runs this place"--i.e., the capitol. At one point Luechtefeld said that some 3,000 people working in Springfield owed their jobs to Madigan, so of course those people were loyal. "Because Madigan" is what 50% of the folks in Springfield say to explain the impasse--the other 50%, of course, say "Because Rauner". [Here it is worth noting that Madigan was pretty clearly not the one "running" the stop-gap funding bill, at least if Rich Miller at Capitol Fax is right to characterize his statement on it as coming from a guy who's just lost. Madigan delayed passage of the bill overnight, perhaps in hopes of keeping up pressure for spending on social services, but seems to have yielded to rank and file by the next morning.]

Of course the more important issue is not who's to blame but what's to be done. Here Luechtefeld again came back to a standard GOP talking point: Illinois needs to start attracting people again, particularly people who will bring jobs. He was smart enough not to say Illinois needs to be more "business friendly" when speaking to a group of unionists, but that's what he meant. He circled back a number of times to the issue of workers' compensation, an item on Rauner's Turnaround Agenda.

Luechtefeld said that everyone recognizes that new revenue needs to be part of the solution.

He said he wasn't necessarily in favor of term limits for legislators (part of Rauner's Turnaround Agenda), because he says they have not produced positive results elsewhere. But he would favor term limits for leadership posts like that held by Madigan.

When asked what we could do to help, Luechtefeld encouraged us to pressure Democratic members to move Madigan to be more flexible. This neatly reverses the message Democratic legislators were giving those who visited them: pressure Republicans to buck Rauner (as was noted in this DE story).

As I write this, I think of better follow-up questions to ask, but of course there were fourteen of us talking to him, with fourteen different perspectives, some of us more open to his take on things than others. I did at one point suggest to him that my headline for the meeting would be something like this: Luechtefeld Recognizes Extent of Higher Ed Crisis, calls for Workers Compensation Reform. He demurred at that (in one of the few times during our long meeting he was slightly testy), but didn't really replace it with anything. He said he was doing everything he could to help, but generally pivoted back to the need for large-scale changes in the business climate in Illinois. This is basically Rauner's approach: first fix the business climate, then we can have a budget. Several in our group pointed out that a state without a budget doesn't provide a good climate for business. And Luechtefeld didn't hold out much hope that the changes he wants would come to pass anytime soon.

Luechtefeld was patient; he was generous with his time, and listened; he understands the extent of the crisis. He exuded an aura of moderation, while not, naturally, abandoning his Republican point of view. But I suppose the fundamental impression he left was one I've felt from others in the legislature, on both sides of the aisle, in the few times I've heard them address this crisis: powerlessness. That's odd, and, frankly, unacceptable.

State legislators do, collectively, have the power to fix this crisis. Democrats aren't in thrall to Madigan and Republicans aren't in thrall to Rauner. Madigan, for all he's done to retain Democratic control in Springfield, has been in power for far too long in a state that all recognize has been run badly. Rauner is a GOP Johnny come lately, not some long-time party stalwart; he barely won the election over an incredibly weak Democratic incumbent, and the only reason Republicans have to respect him is the personal fortune he can spend on their re-election campaigns--or against them. His use of that money to try to influence Democratic races, and in spending against some independently minded GOP incumbents, should hardly endear him to the GOP rank and file.

Nor should we accept legislators excuses when they don't claim they are voting for their leaders (who are universally unpopular) but against the fiend leading the other side. It's not enough to be against Rauner, or against Madigan. 

"Throw the bums out" is too simplistic a solution: we'll just get a new bunch of bums. What we need to do is to hold the bums accountable; to demand they represent us, not just their purported leaders. Let's hope this stop-gap spending bill is a step toward the rank and file developing some backbone; and let's make an effort to elect legislators whose loyalty isn't to Rauner or Madigan but to their constituents.

Update: One of my fellow IEA activists reminds me that Luechtefeld said that he thought funding K-12 may have been a mistake last year--i.e., that it allowed the state to not fund anything else (until various court orders and now this stop-gap bill). When I asked him if he'd support Senate President John Cullerton's proposal not to fund K-12 (Cullerton is a Democrat), Luechtefeld said "we'll see".

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