Column: The Future of the Republican Party in Illinois

“You can’t be for big government, big taxes and big bureaucracy and still be for the little guy.”

– Ronald Reagan

The most recent election night was not kind to Republicans in Illinois. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner, who didn’t accomplish anything as governor and presided over a massive tax hike and more out-of-control spending, was defeated in a landslide. The election was not a repudiation of Republican ideas – it was a repudiation of Raunerism.

The Democrats, led by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, may be pushing Illinois to become the California of the Midwest, but we still are a long way from that. There is a path to victory for Republicans in Illinois.

The Republican Party always will lose statewide in Illinois if it doesn’t give voters a clear choice on economic issues. The Republican Party must stand united for lower taxes, less spending and real reform.

Republicans have made significant gains in the rural parts of Illinois. Districts that once were Democratic strongholds are becoming Republican districts, but the gains in downstate Illinois are not enough to overcome big losses in the suburbs. If the Republican Party is going to turn its election fortunes around, the party must be able to win in both downstate Illinois and in the suburbs.

Republicans first must focus on advancing a positive agenda for Illinois. Only talking about House Speaker Michael Madigan is not a cohesive message. The best way to weaken Madigan is for Republicans to pick up legislative seats. Republicans must make the case that big government and high taxes are hurting, not helping, regular people.

We must show how these taxes are hurting real families and make an appeal to stop driving families out of Illinois by continuing to raise taxes. Republicans must go on the offensive.

The progressive income tax, the linchpin of the Pritzker plan, wouldn’t hurt the wealthy a lot – they easily can move out of Illinois. It would harm the middle class. There is a reason we do not see a tax rate schedule from those supporting the progressive income tax. They do not want voters to see exactly who the progressive income tax will affect. Do you really trust Illinois career politicians to set your tax rates?

The Illinois Republican Party also needs to stand united for cutting property taxes. Specifically, the General Assembly should extend the statewide property tax cap to all units of government (including home rule units of government) and then mandate a 10 percent cut in property tax levies over two years (5 percent a year). Property taxes then would be permanently frozen unless local voters approve an increase.

Local governments would be forced to cut administrative expenses and make hard spending decisions, just like Illinois families are required to do every day. Illinois has 7,000 units of local government. The key to long-term lower property taxes is to give voters the right to consolidate many local governments.

Republicans must oppose tax increases and offer solutions to reduce the cost of government. The most meaningful way to reduce spending is to enact meaningful pension reform. Arizona, similar to Illinois, has a Constitution that makes changing pension benefits very difficult.

The best path for Illinois is to follow the Arizona model and, as part of an overall negotiation with unions on other issues, pass a constitutional amendment to limit annual benefit increases. Also, all new state workers should participate in a 401(k) plan.

Another important way to reduce Illinois spending is to do a much better job of managing the state’s Medicaid program. In addition to eliminating Medicaid waste and fraud, Illinois should be actively pursuing multiple innovative waivers that would save money and make the program more efficient.

We also should be aggressively fighting to increase the federal government’s unfairly low 50 percent Medicaid matching percentage for Illinois. Many other states are receiving a far higher percentage of federal support.

In addition, Republicans need to present a positive agenda on health care. Republicans must strongly make the case for keeping coverage for pre-existing conditions at the state and national levels. Republicans must promote cost-savings ideas such as allowing health care to be purchased on a national basis, providing vouchers for low-income families to purchase health insurance and enacting meaningful medical malpractice reforms.

Finally, Illinois Republicans must recruit better candidates to run, and that recruiting process must begin now – not later. Republicans must look for candidates who can connect with voters and offer fresh ideas. These candidates must be inclusive and must be diverse and, most importantly, must stand for something. Republicans Party leaders also must focus on better integrating the use of technology and vote-by-mail programs in their campaign strategies. Most importantly, Republican candidates need to work harder to keep up with their well-organized Democratic opponents.

Illinois Republicans must rally around lower taxes and meaningful reforms as the only way to save the middle class and stop the mass exodus from Illinois. As Ronald Reagan said, “Simple fairness dictates that government must not raise taxes on families struggling to pay their bills.”

It is time for Republicans to rally around the message of standing up for the people of Illinois by supporting sound economic policies that can turn our state around. If we do that, we can win again.

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